Public Works starts vendor consultations on IT spending

Last year the federal government took a public relations beating for its billion-dollar gun registry boondoggle. Ontario recently suffered the same criticism for its Accenture-built social services system that couldn’t handle payment increases to welfare recipients.

This year both governments

are looking to the private sector for advice on running a tighter IT ship — but with vastly different budgets.

The federal government, for example, recently announced a series of public consultations with the IT vendor community that will run until January. The contract, for almost $25,000, was awarded to the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum, an independent organization that bills itself as a “”good government watchdog.””

The Ontario government also recently appointed a task force to study the management of large information management and information technology (IM/IT) projects. And despite the province’s insistence that it knows only success in such endeavours, it is spending $500,000 to find ways to make it better.

“”The government has had tremendous success with IM/IT projects,”” said Ciaran Ganley, a spokesperson in Ontario’s Management Board Secretariat.

“”In fact, it has attained international recognition in its e-government transformation, but as in other organizations it is incumbent upon us to reflect on our processes and evaluate our progress.””

According to Ed Fine, executive director of the organizational readiness office in the IT services branch of Public Works and Government Services Canada, the federal government is engaged in a horizontal review of expenditures in a number of domains, including information technology. The purpose of those reviews, he added, is to identify how governments can save some of the $5 billion or so it spends per year on IT and be more effective in managing IT on a whole of government basis.

PWGSC also recently announced a review of its procurement practices.

“”The point is the private sector has more experience in managing on an enterprise basis and we want to tap into that expertise and knowledge base,”” said Fine.

The consultations will include questionnaires, interviews and roundtables with vendors of all sizes across the country that have been nominated by industry associations such as ITAC and CATA, said Fine. A report summarizing the findings with recommendations on ways to keep the dialogue going will be issued following the consultations.

The kind of information the government hopes to glean from the discussions includes best practices for managing large IT projects across governmental departments and boundaries as well as managing the human resources and finances aspects.

But while Fine wouldn’t say what particular challenges the government faces in dealing with the private sector on issues such as IT procurement, he did say the government is hoping the sessions serve as a two-way street for information.

“”We want not only a question and answer type of relationship, but rather an understanding of the outcomes we’re aiming for,”” said Fine. “”All stakeholders recognize that our working relationship needs to be continually improved and kept fresh.””

In Ontario, former federal auditor general L. Denis Desautels was appointed in September chair of the task force that will examine ways to improve the province’s management of large-scale IT projects. Other task force members are Carol Stephenson, dean of the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, and David Johnston, president of the University of Waterloo.

Desautels said he hopes to be able to apply some of the experience he gained as AG.

“”Over the years the office of the AG has looked into large IT projects but also some system factors that make some projects succeed and others fail,”” he said. “”In the course of doing that work we had adopted or relied on certain methodologies that were available at the time to do that assessment, so hopefully that experience is relevant to the challenges the Ontario government is facing.””

Howard Grant, president of Ottawa-based Partnering and Procurement Inc., which works with public sector clients, says while the Ontario government hasn’t had the success it would like in IT projects, it’s not alone.

“”The private sector has faced the same issue as well in the sense of how can you create a relationship with a private sector service provider and get the outcome you’re looking for?”” he said. “”They have got good results, so it’s not that they’ve not met the business outcome, but it’s like the 80/20 rule — they’ve probably got 80 per cent of what they wanted and they were hoping they were going to get 100 per cent.””

The bottom line, he said, is that despite those challenges, governments everywhere are proceeding with their large IT projects, especially those related to e-enabling their services.

“”It’s not that the Ontario government is doing it all wrong and other governments are doing it all right,”” said Grant. “”The UK government has had huge problems with technology projects but that’s not stopping them from doing the next one … I don’t believe the driver is failure in IT projects, I think the driver is they understand the importance of it and they want to get it right.””

Grant said although auditor general reports are one way of getting input on a project, they’re only helpful in retrospect.

One of the ways governments can improve the success of their IT projects is to have a third party assess them from conception to implementation, such as the U.K. has done with its gateway process, he said.

“”The intent (of the gateway process) is to ask some very good questions at various phases of the project from the business case to a whole range of things,”” said Grant. “”The thing I like about that process is the report is not one done by the provincial auditor, the report goes to the project team doing the work.””


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