Partnering: It still takes two

Public sector managers need a sound understanding of what information technology can actually deliver, says Peter Barnes.

Barnes, a former Secretary to Cabinet in Ontario who is now a Toronto-based management consultant, told this year’s Lac Carling Congress that IT should be considered an essential tool that requires the same attention as policy development and delivery and human resources.

“I would suggest that the public sector has to wake up to the fact that information is far too critical a component of policy development and service provisions for senior operational managers to abdicate responsibility for the development of the information,” Barnes told a session on best practices for service transformation relationships with the private sector.

“Our dependence on IT for information and good service cannot be ignored.” Managers must not “leave that responsibility to the internal specialists or the external providers and then hold them to account when the needs are not met,” Barnes said. While the placement of chief information officers in the senior ranks of departments is a good step, “I am not at all convinced that mutual understanding has yet been achieved.”

A good relationship with a private IT company also requires the active involvement of senior operational managers of the department involved, Barnes said. Government executives must realize that any business relationship requires their ongoing oversight. Don’t count on technology experts to be experts in project management. “Each major information technology project should have a separate and independent project management component.”

Problems in a business relationship are inevitable and require constant nurturing “An even greater challenge is presented when one of the partners is an organization as diverse and potentially divisive as government,” Barnes pointed out. “Throw in the wide gulf in public sector/private sector cultures and you have a unique challenge — not one that can be resolved by merely transferring the lessons learned in the private sector.” For these reasons, “understanding and sympathy for each other’s environment is a critical success factor in public-private relationships. This can only be achieved if this understanding is widespread in both communities.” The way to develop mutual comprehension of each other “lies in working on the issue just as you would on any other cultural shift you might want to make in your organization.”

Third party mediators and project managers can help massage a private-public partnership along “not only in ensuring realism but also negotiating reality in to new requests for additional or changed products during a project,” Barnes said. Barnes reported a growing concern about “the lack of understanding within the private sector about government and the public service and its systems of operation. I have met far too many private sector managers who have no interest in understanding the system but have many opinions on how to change it.” Public service managers are spending taxpayer’s money on programs developed through political compromise, Barnes said, and are watched by auditors, the media, pressure groups and opposition politicians.

The environment in government is full of checks and balances that add to the time required to get decisions made, Barnes noted. “This means that most processes are going to be more complicated than their equivalents in the private sector.…Of course we should be working to improve the system, but to do this you have to understand it and make it work for you.” Once the private sector understands its public partners, it can develop more realistic business plans, Barnes said. These plans must be “realistic about time and the cost of time, accept the possibility of last minute changes and the need for transparency.” “It also means that attention to deadlines and budgets has to be rigorous. The potential for delay and extra cost is certainly greater as a result of the uncertainties that can surround public sector work.” At the same time, bureaucrats and politicians have to understand that “profit is not a dirty word; it is the lifeblood of our market system. Squeezing your contractor to the point where putting the best people on a job is not affordable will not give you the results you want. Contracts should be let on more than just lowest cost.” “Understanding these issues has to be the subject of serious debate within government. They can be matched to budget pressures. Surely it will be better if 50 projects are done well than [if] 80 are not.”

It was also vital for private-public partners to establish credibility with each other. “I would say to the public sector that you to have a long way to go. You have to be significantly more disciplined about defining need and product in a realistic way. Lack of discipline at this starting point is a major reason for the subsequent problems of cost and delay. “This also means that the private sector has to be totally frank when it knows that a problem has not been well defined. Taking on a project and complaining later or sending in ever increasing invoices does not enhance anyone’s credibility.”

Barnes recalled his stint as an assistant deputy minister of trade and technology for Ontario, setting up centres of manufacturing excellence. They were a success because the right relationship was established between government and the private sector. Barnes’s group worked as third party project management, protecting “both parties from the frustrations that would have otherwise have been inevitable given their totally different cultures.” In another presentation, John Langford of the University of Victoria told the session that the state of relations between IT suppliers and governments has been a recurring theme of the Lac Carling Congress. “But we need to remind ourselves that service transformation relationships still represent relatively new challenges to traditional ways of doing business in both the public and private sectors.” What was needed now was a dialogue on the best collaborative practices.

When he canvassed IT and consulting industry figures in preparation for his presentation, Langford said, he realized that there is no clear definition of what a service transformation is. That meant clear objectives must be established prior to launching one. There is a greater interest within government for IT projects in-house because of past problems with private firms, Langford said. Standardized models for partnerships were needed so every department didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. As well, government should be looking to transform service delivery across departments and agencies to get “bigger service transformation solutions and therefore the common purchase of standardized solutions.” After the presentations, the conference was divided into tables to address two general issues: Characteristics of successful service transformation relationships and private-public partnerships which were worth “cloning.”

Responses on successful transformations echoed many of Barnes’s arguments — the need for senior management involvement on an ongoing basis, a clearly defined set of goals and expectations for any project, and maintaining trust and credibility by discussing problems as they arise. Several tables also suggested keeping the financial status of a project up to date and providing rewards and penalties based on agreed standards. Others said that it should be determined in advance whether a relationship is a partnership or a sophisticated contract — or, as one group put it, a date or a marriage. Government must drive a service transformation with the help of its private partner instead of leaving all the work to the partner, it was also suggested. There should be doors for re-opening and re-evaluating contracts and off ramps as well.

Several projects were cited as possible “clones,” among them Canada Post Business Transformation, the Integrated Registry and the Joint Solution Review Procurement in B.C., Service New Brunswick, the Desktop Management Services Project in Ontario, Service Ontario Kiosks, the building of the Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island, the construction of Highway 407 in Ontario and a maintenance management program in Hamilton, Ont.

Alex Binkley (alex.b[email protected]) is an Ottawa-based freelance journalist).

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