When IT projects go off the rails, is it possible to get back on track? At one time, if a project hit some rough spots but worked out in the end, nobody would even hear about it. But, with more transparency in government processes, the public – and the media – are able to watch projects step by step.“The amount of transparency the government has to live with now compared to 20 years ago is dramatically different, particularly when you’re spending a lot of money,” says Chris Vandersluis, president of HMS Software in Montreal.
“You don’t get to hear that a project went off the rails, you get to watch it go off the rails, and project management tools have only made some of that information more visible.” More transparency means it’s easier to see if a project is behind schedule or going over-budget.
EDS sues Ontario
The Ontario government, for example, had to dish out $63 million to settle litigation over a failed attempt to connect its provincial justice system. The project, known as the Integrated Justice Project, began in 1997, but was cancelled five years later by the former provincial Conservative government after the estimated cost had more than doubled. EDS Canada, which won the settlement last October, said it had delivered seven out of nine initiatives, and responsibility should be shared for those that weren’t delivered on time or on budget. Ultimately, the project turned out to be too large and too complex.
Part of the issue lies with the changing role of project management in the public sector — in some cases with skewered expectations on both sides. Project managers are being asked to bear more risk and responsibility, which can include fixed price or shared risk contracts. But if a project is in trouble, is it possible to bring it back from the abyss and who is ultimately responsible?
There are project managers who specialize in this kind of work, who can be hired to revive an ailing project. First, it’s a matter of figuring out where the project’s at: what’s already been built, and what does the schedule look like? It’s important to communicate this to the executive sponsor and, in the worst-case scenario, the public, says Vandersluis, to explain where the project stands and what’s being done about it.
There are several techniques to deal with project management snafus, which include making the project smaller, changing the scope or number of resources, boxing up an element of the project and sub-contracting it, or even delaying the schedule.
Like Ontario, B.C. had plans for a large-scale integrated justice system, but recognized early on that it wasn’t working out as planned. So it scrapped the original project and broke it down into a number of smaller ones – a technique that so far has worked out well for the province.
Its Supreme Court Scheduling System (SCSS), for example, has been up and running for the past year. Trial coordinators are using the Web-based application to schedule Supreme Court cases and judges. Information in the system is available to all members of the courts, including judges and the public. Prior to this, trial coordinators used DOS-based systems and paper diaries.
Many benefits
“It was overdue to have a provincial database as opposed to separate databases,” says Cindy Friesen, manager of trial co-ordination with the Supreme Court of B.C. The application allows her to see judges’ schedules across the province in different views: daily, weekly, monthly or yearly. “It speeds up document filing — we can see the documents have been filed and trial dates confirmed,” she says. “It’s also allowed us to regionalize some of our scheduling.” They’re working on an application that will allow judges to download their schedule onto a handheld device.
While in theory an integrated justice system seems like a good idea, the actual need to share information between different courts is fairly minimal, says Darren Gibbons, president of OpenRoad Communications, which developed the SCSS. If you appeal a case, for example, that involves an entirely new set of documents – and rarely do court officials need to see details about what happened in a lower court.
Bigger not always better
“Each of those individual courts has a whole history of case logs that is very different — the way in which they schedule those cases, the way in which they’re heard,” he says. “We found that going with these smaller systems that were loosely joined together, they were able to get individual applications that were really targeted specifically for that level of the court and met their needs precisely.”
When it comes to software projects, the larger they get, the more likely they are to run into serious problems, he says. And at a cost — consider Ontario.
But often, the success or failure of a project is influenced by public perception. And for large-scale projects that take months or even years, this can be a real drain on a project manager, says Vandersluis. If there are any problems, everyone’s going to hear about it, which can lower morale and put the project in jeopardy.
Still, every project will have elements that don’t turn out as originally planned. “If projects turned out you’d never need a project manager,” he says. “Life happens.”

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