Bureau for IT Review
The result of the Parliamentary investigation into Governmental IT projects will result in a new institute, the Bureau for IT Review (BIT). And despite the fact that the ten recommendations of the investigation committee are very good, this BIT will not bring the expected improvement. The committee wants to give the BIT a controlling role. This will not dissolve the chaos of Governmental IT within five to seven years. BIT will only be successful if it helps projects to excell. Therefore it should follow the example of initiatives from the United States, the United Kingdom and Mexico.
It has taken the Temporary Committee on Government IT Projects two years of investigation to present its final report on failures of government IT projects. The conclusions are harsh. The committee identified numerous failures in Governmental IT projects. That did not come as a surprise to many, but now it has been documented in a parliamentary investigation report. In december 2014 the Dutch House of Representatives has debated for two days on the report and the resolutions on the committee recommendations have been adopted unanimously. The prime recommendation was to establish a Bureau for IT Review (BIT), a temporary IT Authority to bring order to the chaos of Governmental IT in the next five to seven years. It will be a controlling body with enough mandate to stop ICT projects. The responsible Minister has announced that the Cabinet will issue a proposal for the establishment of the BIT in February in response to the resolutions adopted by the House of Representatives.
The committee was clearly inspired by the Americans, who introduced the Raines Rules in 1996 to evaluate funding proposals for information systems investments. These rules do not provide guidance for a proper project execution. The ten BIT-rules go further then funding evaluation. They are useful in advance, and during a project. With these rules the committee intends not only to stop projects that are headed for disaster (see my previous blog on Budget overrun or estimation deficit), but also projects that muddle along and fail to deliver results.
And that approach worries me. When that is the approach that is chosen for the BIT, then the emphasis will be on firefighting and preventing errors. I doubt whether the Governmental IT departments and their suppliers will structurally learn something. When the true ambition of the BIT is to bring order in the chaos of Governmental IT in the next five to seven years, then the BIT should choose a differen course.
Change of culture
In order to really tackle the Governmental IT chaos, a change of culture is required. The recommendation to attract more high-level IT experts will certainly help, but is certainly not the definitive answer. Fortunately the committee has also concluded that a proper use of the knowledge of commercial businesses can help to improve the quality of IT projects. A good instrument to do this is to tender based on the Best Value model, to select the best expert for the tendered project.
Best Value Model
This model is based on the presumption that the supplier as expert can create the best conditions for a successful project and that the client must create room for the expert to excell. Fortunately, this instrument is mentioned briefly in the report. The leading idea is still that the Government should initiate projects, but do so in a better way. An increasing number of IT project organizations transform to an organization in which fixed teams develop, evolve, maintain and manage information systems. This approach has many advantages, like involvement, manageability and proper prioritization. If this transformation propagates within Governmental IT, the BIT will have a smooth ride.
Tighten the reins
When I read the committee advice right then the main issue is that the BIT will get sufficient power. The title of the most important recommendation is: ‘A BIT with teeth‘. BIT should be able to tighten the reins when necessary to prevent IT projects from stampeding. At the helm someone with authority, expertise and experience, that is not to be thrifled with. To underline this authority ten rules have been drafted, comparable to the Ten Commandments.
In an interview just after the presentation of the report, committee chairman Elias informed that the purpose of the BIT is to control and intervene in a world with an ominous corporate culture. I sense a negative undertone about preventing negative aspects. With this undertone the required change of culture will not be established. Control and correct will not lead to improved behaviour, but to a risk avoiding attitude. The cost of this type of behaviour can give rise to another Parliamentary committee in a few years time. Any psychologist can explain that reward has a more lasting effect then punishment. The BIT should take advantage of that knowledge. In the UK and Mexico some initiatives have started that in my view could bring about the required change of culture. I hope that these will be included in the Cabinet proposal.
National Institute for IT Excellence
In the UK a group of prominent scientists and industry representatives have written a proposal to establish a National Institute for ICT Excellence. This independent institute must ensure that Government is really learning from experience and that enough expertise is available within the Government to manage successful IT projects. The institute should also collect Government wide benchmark data, in order to support evidence based decision making on IT projects. This NIITE should play an advisory role.
Mexico takes a further step
Indego, the research and development center for IT in the Mexican Gulf, is testing a standard approach for big Governmental projects that supports project execution with best practices on processes, tools and measurement:
- For processes within and around the project the TSP framework is used, developed by the Software Engineering Institute
- For tooling the e-Government Standard Framework is used, developed by the Ministry of Public Administration of South Korea
- For making software development measurable the COSMIC method is used
In the Mexican approach for big Governmental projects the choice is to equip these projects with as much as possible proven methods to help create success. Making mistakes is not a problem, repeating mistakes is. Control tollgates do not prevent repeating mistakes. We should progress towards a culture that stimulates learning from other projects, so that in five to seven years Governmental IT will be excellent. A lot of projects are successful (see my earlier blog Successful IT projects really do exist). The BIT should not be a tollgate that you must pass, but a gate to another successful IT application that adds value to the Netherlands. Adding value requires a change of culture, not additional control overhead. In a world where we move towards empowerment and self-organizing teams, where approaches like Agile are successful, a new tollgate will destroy more than its worth.
So, excellence is the way forward, not another tollgate. If BIT chooses excellence, I’m happy to help.
About the author:
Frank Vogelezang is Manager Pricing Office of Ordina, the largest independent services provider in the field of consulting, solutions and IT in the Benelux. He is also president of COSMIC, the Common Software Measurement International Consortium and member of the Counting Practices Committee of Nesma. This article was originally posted (in Dutch) in Computable.
A blog post represents the personal opinion of the author
and may not necessarily coincide with official Nesma policies.