Take a business-centric view of IT projects, task force urges Ontario government

A task force headed by former federal Auditor General Denis Desautels has some advice for the Ontario government on how to better manage large IT projects.

If followed, these directives could have a significant impact on how IT service providers do business with the province.

Commissioned by the province, the task force found 40 per cent of projects failed to come in on deadline and under budget. While it said the government has done well delivering e-services, the report found other large IT projects have suffered from a lack of political buy-in and a tendency to view IT projects as a technology exercise only, and not a business transformation process.

The report made a series of recommendations, including relying less on outside project management firms and instead building-up project management expertise within the public service, and considering raises to attract and retain veteran staff.

Experience shows it’s almost always better to manage projects internally, Desautels told a news conference last week. It’s a matter of best practices, not a lack of trust, he said.

Recommendations included escape clauses in contracts so under-performing vendors can be dropped, faster approval on smaller projects, a preference for shorter projects and fewer projects overall. The report also urged the government to take a wider business, rather then technology centric, view of IT projects.

The government responded quickly with a set of interim measures, and has three months to study the recommendations before making its official response.

“We agree with the task force’s overarching recommendation that major business transformations need strong executive leadership and project management,” said Jason Wesley, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Government Services.

In the interim, the government will take measures to increase management oversight and leadership of IT projects, provide better training for project managers and begin formal post-mortems after major projects to gather lessons learned. However, none of the interim measures dealt with increasing internal headcount to lessen reliance on outside contractors.

“We’ll have to study the report and its recommendations in greater detail before we make any commitments beyond those which we’ve already stated,” said Wesley.

According to one industry representative, everybody benefits if the government cultivates project management expertise internally.

Even if the government does rely less on the private sector, in the long run IT companies will benefit, said Bernard Courtois president and CEO of the Information Technology Association of Canada. Courtois was among those who testified before the task force.

“Everyone does better if the government is an expert buyer and project manager, and there’s a much better chance of avoiding problems,” said Courtois. “I think experience demonstrates the more successful these projects are the more customers will spend on future projects.”

Duncan Card, a partner specializing in IT transactions with Toronto law firm Bennett Jones also testified before the task force. Card agreed with the call for more planning, building a stronger business case, and writing a more detailed request for proposals before launching any major IT project.

He said public interest demands that public sector managers retain their strategic focus. “We need top people to do that, and we’ve got to pay for them,” said Card. “If we’re expecting people to manage billion dollar projects we’ve got to compete with the private sector to get those people.”

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