Why big government IT projects fail

There are great ideas for how technology can change the way government operates, but without appropriate consideration to adoption, a project can be destined to fail.

Any technology can be said to improve a government’s operations and inefficiencies, but it doesn’t matter how sophisticated the programming or equipment is if it is left underutilized. Just because you build it, doesn’t mean anyone will actually use it.

One can demand through mandated policy that government employees get on board before the train leaves the station. But they may yet stand unmoved on the platform, or the train may just go at a very slow pace. High-performance organizations in government are exceptionally aware of changes in their environment, and they’re able to translate insight into action.

Most IT projects fail not because of the inherent technology, but because of people-related issues. This is true both in the private and public sectors. The barriers to success in government projects include some clearly defined hurdles:

Politics: A new system might look good on paper, but in practice it doesn’t seem to work for the users.

Lack of value: This perception by employees and management can disable a project before it even begins.

Skills gap: It is the responsibility of those involved to ensure that everyone knows how to work within the new system and quickly determine skills gaps within an organization.

Organizational change: A well-established culture may not encourage change. As well, there may be challenges in sustaining the change as the system starts getting adopted and new work habits are put into place.

Project management: The strength of the team and leadership of a project will help ensure that the outcomes are met and that the people factor is addressed up front.

Despite these issues, if properly managed and promoted, IT undertakings can transform any organization – from the back-office of a government ministry to citizen delivery – into a high performer in government organizations. This is especially important considering the demands for accountability and service delivery that the public is placing on government agencies.

How can leadership ensure that a government IT project will perform and achieve the adoption level necessary to ensure its success? While each government organization has different goals for its specific program, there are also similar characteristics that can be developed to create a better chance of success.

All of this should begin from a clear starting point: make certain everyone in the leadership team has a clear understanding of the new system and a clear view of the workforce that will implement this project. Every project must have decisive leadership who believes in the program and who projects that belief onto the organization.

This is called “executive engagement.” In essence, executives need to have plans and key messaging that will help employees better embrace the project. These managers need to have engagement opportunities and exploratory activities that are organized and lead them through each phase of the project to ensure acceptance.

A key component of this is managing business objectives within the project. This means stressing a systematic and organized focus on achievable goals to attain the best possible results.

As well, it’s about increasing organizational performance by aligning goals and subordinate objectives across the government department. To align interests, management must be certain employees receive strong input in identifying their objectives.

But managers must also be careful to avoid becoming too involved with daily activities that take their focus off their objectives. To avoid this trap, a government agency or department should involve all managers to participate in the strategic planning process; this will help to improve implementation.

A project needs energetic and visionary leadership, with a particular focus on target behaviour and outcomes. Without a strong leadership team, the likelihood of a project succeeding within any market segment, let alone government, is far from certain.

High-performance organizations in government are headed by courageous leaders. They need to understand the importance of the so-called “burning platform” – that major issue, central to the organization, that needs to be rectified.

This can be done only through appropriately defined business drivers. Once this is established, an organization and its key management can determine how to focus resources and drive further understanding of the importance of the IT project to the entire operation.

From the beginning of the project, continuous attention needs to be given to interpreting, understanding and influencing the organizational situation that will in turn drive the change progress.

This starts by the organization identifying who the key influencers will be. This will also help with the ability to set, navigate and adjust a change management path by taking into account the unexpected.

An organization’s executive leadership must be disciplined for the duration of the project, including post-implementation. This will ensure a continual focus on systems and “big picture” thinking, and the project’s role in achieving corporate objectives. It also will help to align intent with behaviour, strategy with operations, rewards with performance measures and structure with intent.

Throughout the project’s rollout, “journey management” will be vital to assuring the project does not become derailed. In essence, journey management is making certain team leaders are keeping the project aligned with the key business issues facing the organization over the term of the project.

One key step in the journey of a major IT project is the creation of a climate and readiness for change, an ability to break out of “business as usual.” Some organizations falter because, after an initial push, not enough work is done to sustain the culture over the course of the journey.

A strong analytical framework is also necessary: one that measures value creation and that shows how each facet of the enterprise contributes to the overall value proposition. In the end, it is executive leadership that helps fundamentally drive the success or failure of an IT project within government.

You can build it and hope they will come. But only if you are careful, monitor each step, gain support through the implementation process and determine which areas of the organization are fully supporting the project, only then can your field of dreams be a reality too.

Alden Cuddihey is a senior executive with Accenture Canada’s government group. He can be reached at alden.cuddihey@accenture.com

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