Ontario task force asks province to rethink IT strategy

The Ontario government needs to pay more attention to the fact that major information technology projects are about business transformation, according to the report from a task force charged with examining

the province’s approach to such projects.

The Special Task Force on the Management of Large Scale Information and Information Technology Projects, chaired by former federal Auditor-General Denis Desautels, made a number of recommendations, including appointment of a deputy minister responsible for overseeing large IT projects, a portfolio management approach to major IT projects, more project-management training and a strong emphasis on benefits. 

Several industry commentators praised the report, with a few reservations, and the province moved quickly to act on some of its recommendations.

“Major business transformation in the Ontario government is often treated merely as an IT initiative, as opposed to the complex organizational change management challenge that it actually is,” the report said.

Bernard Courtois, president and chief executive of the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), agreed. “Major transformation projects are extremely important to the government of Ontario and they need to manage them better,” he said. “They’re not the only customer facing that issue.”

The task force recommended that the Management Board of Cabinet determine the government’s capacity for large IT-driven transformation projects and limit the number and size of concurrent projects accordingly. This goes hand-in-hand with the recommendation that the province take a portfolio management approach to IT investment and management. Desautels said some jurisdictions the task force studied give portfolio management more emphasis than Ontario does. 

The report also urges project sponsors to prepare more thoroughly for procurement and proceed only when a clear business case has been developed, and recommends a gateway review process for project approvals and funding. It urges that contracts contain clear “off-ramps” allowing the government to end its relationship with a vendor that is not performing.

The report also points to a need to “make project management a core competency of the Ontario Public Service, and to review the pay of IT people within the government “to help attract and retain talent.” Project management is another area where some other jurisdictions seemed to be doing better than Ontario, Desautels noted.

Overall, though, Desautels said Ontario does a relatively good job on IT. “If you divided the universe into two halves,” he said, “it would be in the top half.”

Greg Lane, former president of the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS), said the report contains “nothing earth-shattering.” He said he would have liked more emphasis on the role of the private sector through public-private partnerships, and on professionalism in the IT sector. Certification of IT workers through programs like CIPS’ Information Systems Professional (ISP) designation is a key issue for CIPS.

John Reid, president of the Canadian Advanced Technology Association (CATA) said he would have liked to see more attention paid to the use of government IT procurement as a tool for cultivating Canadian IT companies. Governments should play a role as early customers and reference accounts for technology startups within their jurisdictions, Reid said.

He praised several elements of the report, though, including the need to look at IT compensation and a call to shorten project approval times.

Duncan Card, an IT transaction lawyer and partner at Toronto law firm Bennett Jones LLP, called the emphasis on clear business cases the “most positive thing” in the report. He also supported a recommendation that government separate design from build in IT projects. “Some of the biggest disasters happen in public-sector IT when people confuse the design with the build phase.”

On that note, Card said his one concern with the report came in an appendix that, in discussing best practices, referred to “benefits-driven” procurement that “emphasizes the results and benefits to be derived from a project, instead of focusing only on a specific solution to a business problem or its detailed specifications and requirements.” Card said that sounds uncomfortably like just telling a vendor what the desired results are and abdicating responsibility for how those results are achieved, which seems to contradict the separation of design and build and the recommendation to spend more time on up-front project planning.

Pointing out that the “benefits-driven” reference was in an appendix and not a recommendation of the task force, Desautels said procurement is a difficult area, but he believed a benefits-driven approach could be consistent with the report’s recommendations.

Shortly before the report was released the province had already created a new deputy minister position responsible for business transformation and public service modernization. Desautels said this may address one of the report’s key recommendations, although “we’ll have to see in practice how much time that particular deputy minister has for (business transformation) responsibilities.”

The province also said it plans to create a portfolio management approach for information and IT projects and design a scorecard system to assess project proposals for risk, business case readiness and alignment with government priorities. It will institute quarterly reports to Management Board on major projects, put in place the gateway review process recommended in the report, and conduct post-mortems on all large information and IT projects. The government also said it will implement a standard project management methodology and training program for project managers.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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