What next?

The long-awaited Report of the Ontario’s Special Task Force on the Governance of Large-Scale Information Technology Projects was delivered in the torrid heat of July. The task force, headed by former Auditor General Denis Desautels, was asked to review 21 “large” information and information technology (I&IT) projects that had been undertaken by the Government of Ontario since 1997. More specifically, the government asked the panel to advise on how it could improve the management, governance and accountability of future projects.

The initiatives studied ranged from the Collaborative Seniors’ Portal Project at $1.3M to the half-billion-dollar Smart Card project that was started in 2000. The context is important: While the government had clearly led in many aspects of building the public sector I&IT architecture, there were also significant breakdowns, with integrated justice, network services, social services and many others.

Those familiar with government operations or large I&IT projects won’t be surprised by the findings of the Desautels report. Public servants around the world have grappled with the same cost overruns and the same management frustrations. To its credit, the government wanted to get to the bottom of things – hoping for a clean operational slate, or at least a new beginning to positively distinguish its own record from that of their Progressive Conservative predecessors.

But by submitting a report of less than 40 pages, the Desautels panel leaves us wondering about a lot of things. It is not clear on what evidence the recommendations have been based, and there is no perspective provided on where mistakes and accomplishments have been made in the past. In short, there is little analysis in this report, a decision obviously made to avoid embarrassment. Still, for mistakes to be corrected they must be acknowledged. Hopefully, this will be provided in some way so that the recommendations can be better understood.

There is no mistaking the thrust of the report. When the panel observes that government projects have suffered “from a lack of organizational resolve,” one must resist the temptation to rush to the gov-speak code book to decipher the real meaning behind this expression. The task force has obviously been struggling with the need to find both structural and cultural solutions to the problems that have plagued the Ontario’s management of I&IT projects.

The most important structural recommendation of the report is for the government to designate a deputy minister for major I&IT projects. The panel emphasizes that all other recommendations flow from this starting point, including those related to project planning, oversight, measurement, human resource issues and procurement. The expectation is that appointing a deputy minister with direct accountability for the development and execution of major transformation projects will create a more direct accountability to cabinet. The hope is that more rigour and sophistication will result.

The Desautels panel acknowledged that the creation of a deputy-level position could add another layer of bureaucratic structure, so it also argued for a counterbalance of sorts: A more streamlined governance process to clarify roles and responsibilities. Most importantly, the task force recommended that the Management Board Secretariat of Cabinet “strictly limit” the number and size of large undertakings in order to ensure that each receives the proper level of attention. In terms of encouraging a culture of improved business practices, it suggested that project management competencies throughout the Ontario public service be dramatically improved, notably among managers engaged at the front lines of project implementation.

Is this workable advice? Effective, results-oriented public sector management is a lot more about administrative styles than structures. The installation of deputy-level oversight creates a risk that line ministry projects will be centralized. The limit on the number of projects may be theoretically reasonable, but will I&IT needs in, for example. transportation literally have to wait in line until Ministry of Health issues are resolved? This thinking also assumes that I&IT transformation projects have finite beginnings and ends. But it does not work that way. These projects in 21st century Canada will not end. Instead, they will keep multiplying. One deputy minister will not be able to keep up, and the minister responsible for the file will quickly wish for a less controversial portfolio.

The issue is critical: How will a central-agency deputy minister co-exist effectively with the Corporate Chief Information Officer (CIO) who already has enterprise-wide responsibilities for strategic planning and government-wide thinking around IT-enabled change? While endorsing the province’s current architecture of CIO clusters (federated with a central CIO authority), the panel is silent on the management of what potentially could be dual processes. After all, the vital need to pursue innovation and creativity after contracts have been signed is critical: How creative can a system be if line ministry CIOs must report to both the DM and the Corporate CIO?

The panel’s wish to see the Ontario Public Service parcel out projects in smaller installments, combined with streamlined governance and the empowerment of front line managers, is more promising, but no less challenging to manage. Moving away from so-called “big bang” projects in favour of smaller, inter-linked sub-components may be a good idea in theory. The notion that new checkpoint mechanisms be created to provide early warnings of difficulties is also a good one. But it will depend on a culture that rewards and recognizes creativity, not an org-chart.

Indeed, the nature of the transformation of the administrative style of the OPS in order to excel in these projects will be essential, and the panel should have examined this issue much more closely. Its calls for project management skills in the I&IT sector will have to be promoted throughout the bureaucracy. More importantly, they will have to be combined with exceptional contract negotiation skills, in-depth knowledge of government service requirements and strong liaison abilities. Our own analysis of IT-based service transformations underscores political engagement, senior management support, and exceptional staff negotiation skills as critical success variables. (See Dutil, Langford, Roy [2005], Managing Service Transformation Relationships Between Government and Industry: Developing Best Practices (Institute of Public Administration of Canada [www.ipac.ca] and IT World Canada [www.itworld.ca], forthcoming volume in New Directions Series based on case studies from across the country and plenary discussions at the most recent Lac Carling Congress in May 2005).

The Desautels report often gives the impression that it is skeptical of the private sector’s role in large scale transformations involving IT. It also leaves the impression that fixing the problems associated with large IT projects is entirely a government concern. This hardly seems realistic and such ideological leanings probably will not endure – and indeed, they should not cloud the need for the collaborative imperative at the heart of the challenge that lies ahead. There will inevitably be an expansion of private sector involvement in online public service delivery because the Ontario Public Service – like all governments – will not have the necessary technical and managerial capacity required to run the projects on their own. The biggest challenges, therefore, will lie in the establishment of effective working relationships across sectors.

The panel was aware of this. It recommended that the government engage in an open and transparent dialogue with industry. This would take place outside traditional procurement vehicles in order to address this crucial relationship in a more direct and ongoing fashion (such a mechanism already exists in Quebec).

While there is much to be applauded in the recommendations of the Desautels task force, its report was greeted with silence by most affected stakeholders. The summer season may have something to do with this, but perhaps there is a deeper suspicion. By clinically pointing to the machinery of government and calling for improvements in the learning of government employees, the report may have underestimated the enormity of the changes that will be required for the government to work better with the private sector. Cultural changes take time, money and exceptional leadership.

The government is now reviewing the recommendations and there are indications that it is positively disposed towards many proposed reforms. Even prior to the panel’s final report, for instance, the province announced the appointment of a new deputy minister for business transformation and public service modernization. It has also indicated that it will adopt variations on most other key elements of the report including a portfolio management strategy for IT projects, a more comprehensive approach to the development of the business case for projects, strengthened project management and more robust “gateway” review and reporting and post-mortem regimes.

These are good initiatives, but the government will have to grapple seriously with the cultural transformations that will be required to substantially improve its management of large-scale IT projects. Until then, it will be difficult to believe that the Desautels panel’s recommendations will have provided a basis for improvement.

Patrice Dutil is Director of Research at the Institute of Public Administration of Canada. John Langford is professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria. Jeffrey Roy is associate professor in the School of Management at the University of Ottawa.

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