Breaking the red tape

Have your projects ever been delayed by requisite approvals andother bureaucratic procedures? In the IT business, you’re notalone. When all an IT executive wants is to do their job and do itwell, but ends up spending more time dealing with bureaucracy and“red tape,” it’s frustrating.

Like many chief information officers (CIOs), Howard Dickson, HongKong’s government CIO (GCIO) deals with these same challenges, buton a much larger scale. As Hong Kong’s first government CIO reachesthe first anniversary of his three-year term, Computerworld HongKong takes a look at his first year in office. How adept was theOGCIO (Office of the GCIO) at dealing with Hong Kong’s mostcomplicated organization: the HKSAR Government?

Under an established structure like the government, getting any ITprojects approved and completed is naturally a complicated process.To fight with layers of red tape, the government began streamliningits own IT operation in July 2004, when OGCIO was formed.

Government structure streamlining

With the merger of the Information Technology Service Department(ITSD) and the IT-related divisions of the Commerce, Industry andTechnology Bureau (CITB), the OGCIO aims to provide a streamlinedgovernment structure to deliver IT (CITB still exists, while ITSDwas scrapped).

Under the previous structure, CITB was a policy-establishment body.It developed the Digital 21 strategy and created the ESDlife model.Meanwhile, ITSD was an execution department that implemented thesestrategies.

“Although [these two organizations] were very closely related, theyremained two separate departments working towards the same goals,”said Jonson Yue, senior manager, solution and industry marketing atHP. “By bringing the two functions within OGCIO, we see aunification of policy and implementation body under a singleplatform and leadership.”

Yue, an active industry contributor to Hong Kong’s e-governmentpolicy, said the merger also gives OGCIO a better position topromote and implement IT initiatives among the executives ofgovernment departments as well as their IT departments.

“For the working staff within OGCIO, having a single departmentalso reduces the impression of a hierarchical difference betweenthe two,” said Patricia Lau, consultant at PA Consulting. Thecompany provides business and management consulting services fororganizations in both the public and private sectors. “For theservice and technology suppliers, it also brings a centralized andsingle point of contact,” she said.

Changing roles

The new government department also marks a new role for thegovernment’s IT operation.

“[The establishment of] OGCIO indicates the government is placingits IT operation in a more strategic role,” said Lau at PAConsulting. “This is in sync with what’s happening at the privatesector, where IT managers take up a more business strategic role tobecome CIOs.”

Dickson agreed that playing a more strategic role within thegovernment is the OGCIO’s direction.

“Hopefully, we are coming from an image of being ‘purely technical’to becoming a partner,” said Dickson. “It’s not that we have‘silver bullets,’ but just like [in] any large organization,somehow wishful thinking kicks in and some assumptions don’t have agood foundation.”

“What we are doing,” explained the GCIO, “is to help departmentsrealize this sooner. When a project does not have a good base forits scheduling, the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can dosomething about it.”

He noted that either his team or himself personally are involved inmany departments’ IT projects, trying to understand the projectscope and highlight any potential challenges. Although Dickson didnot share specific examples of these projects, he said the OGCIOhas built a closer relationship with various departments, includingthe Transportation Department, Immigration Department, the Treasureand the Health, Welfare and Food Bureau.

“I can’t really give you specific examples…this is a little likea doctor-patient relationship,” he explained. “I think that’s partof having a more mature relationship with the departments. We seemto have departments more willing to cooperate and we are hearingless of the ‘we need to run things our own way’ type ofconversations. I think that is a good change.”

Taking ownership

Riding on a stronger relationship with government departments, theOGCIO is also taking up ownership in the provisioning of publicservices online with the new One-Stop Portal (OSP) strategy.

Aimed at unifying content and transactions, the OSP will merge thetransaction-slate currently available on the ESDlife site withcontent from the Government Information Center ( The OSP,expected to debut “around mid-2006” according to a January 2006statement from the OGCIO, will re-provision public services fromESDlife and is expected to serve as a platform to attract morejoint-departmental services.

Yet not everyone approves of the OGCIO’s achievement in building astronger relationship with the departments.

“Currently, the relationship between the OGCIO and governmentdepartments can be described as ‘loosely coupled’,” said a sourcefamiliar with government operations. “Since the OGCIO does not havea strong enough influence and relationship with individualdepartments, the IT unit of most departments tend to follow theirown business strategy rather than the overall e-governmentstrategy.”

The source added that execution, particularly on enforcingtechnical standards and developing joint-department IT initiatives,is slow due to a lack of strong influence from OGCIO, as well ascooperation between departments.

“Although we have heard lots of good comments about how well oure-government projects are, I think it’s more self-appraising,” saidthe source. “Compared to governments in Canada and Australia, the[equivalent] office has more influence than ours. I think thereason is down to the relationship developed with otherdepartments.”

Clear vision

The source also claimed the slow execution is a result of anunclear e-government strategy and direction.

“For example, even if we have a five-year plan, how exactly toachieve the goal is unclear,” said the source. “Our goals arevague, so it seems like a never-ending journey. We do not know howmuch of the roadmap we have achieved or the milestones to achievethe ultimate goal.”The source suggested a dedicated team to map outa clear e-government vision with specific requirements. Departmentscan then work toward developing a roadmap and identifyingmilestones.

“I’m not satisfied with the volume of cross-departmentalinitiatives—we are not as big as we’d like,” responded Dickson tocomments that the OGCIO’s direction is shared client services isless-than-clear. “But I think it [OGCIO] is getting more attentionand we are starting to build some help.”

Dickson noted the government is setting up a dedicated team, theService Transformation Sub-Committee (STC), to address the issue ofcross-departmental initiatives. The STC aims to “better engagedepartments in the process of proposing and prioritizing servicetransformation initiatives especially those requiring across-departmental and multi-skilled approach,” stated the OGCIO ata February 2006 Legco IT panel discussion on Digital 21.

Expected to start its first meeting in the first quarter of thisyear, the STC will be chaired by the GCIO and falls under theFinancial Secretary-chaired E-government Steering Committee to drawup a government-wide service transformation.

“We will [identify] the big barriers to move ahead in e-governmentand sort them out,” said Dickson. “We are trying to get various keyplayers in the discussion, setting the agenda and deciding where dowe like to be in a couple years time to get there and what thingswe need to do and pursue.”

The key players will include officials from the Financial, Servicesand Treasury Bureau, Civil Service Bureau and EfficiencyUnit.

Ongoing challenges

Despite all these initiatives, many challenges still remain for theOGCIO. One of them is dealing with conflicting interests.

“Generally, I think the OGCIO scores on execution [of variouse-government initiatives]. But [the initiatives] often slow down atthe consultation and planning stage,” said Sunny Lee, head oftechnology business at Towngas. “I share their frustrations and[understand that] things don’t happen as easy as outsiders wouldthink.”

Lee, also the president of the Hong Kong Computer Society, notedwhat makes the job of the government’s IT more challenging is thattheir users are the public, who often have conflictinginterests.

“Different from the private sector, the government’s priority ispublic interest, which can often be very diverse,” he said. “It isa given fact that you can never make everybody happy. There will besituations that some will be glad with your policy and some will beagainst it.”

One example is the establishment of the Information TechnologyManagement Unit (ITMU). Formed in 2002, the ITMU is a technicalsupport operation under ITSD. Different teams of ITMU were assignedto various departments and bureaus to facilitate their IToperations.

“It is now much easier for us to approach the government,particularly with the establishment of the ITMU,” noted agovernment supplier. “However, it is only easier on theinfrastructure level. We never know who to contact when it comes toissues on the application level or operation level.”

Meanwhile for some government departments, ITMU creates a problemin IT staff management. “Since staff from ITMU is hired by OGCIO,they may not understand the department’s operation and execute ITpolicy with the best interest of the department,” said thegovernment’s source. “That’s the set back with a centralized ITunit to set policy and execute IT initiatives.”

Another challenge is the tight governance structure within thegovernment. “Of course, it’d be nice if things could move faster,but that’s almost impossible under a tightly governed organizationlike the Hong Kong government,” noted Lee from Towngas.

Despite there being a barrier to and new initiatives, a tightgovernance structure is important for a complicated organizationlike the government to enforce tight control and ensure a balanceof interest across the board.

One of the biggest challenges is that most IT projects extendbeyond the term of principal government officials. Dickson notedmost IT projects—from planning, developing a business case toprocurement, staffing, development, implementation andtesting—would take over four years.

“You are probably looking at four and a quarter years [to completean IT project],” he said, adding that this timeframe implies smoothrunning of all relevant processes. “But you will find in mostgovernment bureaux and departments, many senior officials won’tstay at the same position for that long. So, it is understandablefor them to ask for a strong business case to justify such majorinvestment.”

Dickson noted that’s not only an issue within the Hong Konggovernment, but an overall problem in any large organization. It isalso human nature for officials to try managing a project withintheir own scope.

“People like to see jobs start, get carried out and actually finishwithin their tenure,” he said.

However, the issue of a bureaucratic structure is something thatthe OGCIO cannot deal with by themselves, added Lee from Towngas.“It takes all departments and department heads to stay in sync inorder to create more cross-department services and change theculture and mindset of the staff,” he said.

But, according to Dickson, the key is understanding end users’needs.

“I think [the key is] visibility of what citizens want,” he said.“Departments are there to serve citizens.”

“If the service makes sense to the citizen, then there aremotivations for departments to support these initiatives,”concluded the GCIO.

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