Treasury Board preps response to critical A-G report

Treasury Board Secretariat, once again the target of an Auditor General smackdown, says it will release in the next six months a new policy on project management and a directive on large IT projects.

The most recent report, released Tuesday, once again criticized TBS, as the head of the IT house, so to speak, for failing to ensure individual departments conform to policies and practices that ensure – or at least make it more likely – that the billions of dollars spent on business projects relying extensively on IT aren’t entirely wasted.

“The government agrees with the Auditor General’s recommendations,” said Robert Makichuk, head of TBS media relations. “The government of Canada is committed to strengthening its management practices to ensure greater accountability and value for money.”

Makichuk said the directive is part of the government’s broader policy renewal initiative, which has underway for some months now. “We’re reviewing all the policies on project management to clarify management responsibilities and accountabilities and to increase the focus on organizational capacity, as well as on the risk and complexity,” he said. “The recommendations the AG makes are going to contribute to the work that has already been underway on this and will feed into it.” 

According to the AG, the federal government has approved funding of $8.7 billion for new business projects with significant use of IT in the last three years. While individual departments are responsible for their projects, the TBS plays a central role in ensuring that IT projects fit the government’s priorities and follow sound management principles.

The audit found that only two of the seven large IT projects examined – Canada Revenue Agency’s My Account, My Business Account, and Statistics Canada’s 2006 Census Online – met all the criteria for well-managed projects. 

Five of the projects – in Public Works, Agriculture, CRA, Citizenship and Immigration and the Expenditure Management Information System — were allowed to proceed with a business case that was incomplete or out-of-date or contained information that could not be supported, the AG said. The majority of projects examined were undertaken even though departments lacked the appropriate skills and experience to manage the projects or the capacity to use the system to improve the way they deliver their programs.

Makichuk said the new directive will prevent departments from coming to TBS for approval without a proper business case, which will include precise and measurable objectives, full analysis of options, benefits, costs and risks, and a full analysis of off-the-shelf versus custom technology options. As well, he said, they will be required to show an implementation plan that divides the project into manageable phases that each deliver values so the project can be re-evaluated after each phase.

“We’re talking about analysis of the organizational capacity of the department proposing the project to manage it, including plans to address any organizational deficiencies that might cause problems,” he said. Departments will also have to find a senior executive sponsor that has a demonstrated understanding of and commitment to that project.

“The idea is to provide effective management and clearly establish leadership,” said Makichuk. 

TBS president John Baird, speaking at a press conference Tuesday, said he believes Ken Cochrane, the government’s new CIO, is up to the challenge of more tightly reining in business cases and managing outsourced relationships.

“We have a new chief information officer that brings a lot of skills to the task,” he said in prepared remarks made available to “A greater oversight at the Treasury Board will take place, but you know, these large IT projects are an ongoing concern for me. There is not a magic wand that we can wave, but it is certainly something that we are going to watch very carefully.”

If TBS’s response proves effective, it will be the first time in years, according to the AG’s report. The report says it looked at a set of large IT projects in 1996. Its findings then reinforced findings in a previous review — that strong governance, defined as consistent support and effective sponsorship of IT projects by senior management, is critical to a project’s success and the achievement of intended results.

Government departments, the report said, often set their projects up for failure by assigning part-time project leaders, with no training or experience in managing large IT projects.

TBS then responded by creating the overall guidance document, Enhanced Management Framework (EMF), followed in 1998, with an EMF for the management of information technology projects, Part II, to help departments apply the EMF.

But, the report said, “Since 1998, the Secretariat has produced little additional guidance on the management of large IT systems,” although the chief information officer branch of the Treasury Board Secretariat is undertaking a complete review of the EMF and has recently piloted a new methodology for measuring and reporting the outcomes of a few large IT projects.

As well, the federal government paid Public Policy Forum $25,000 in 2004 to stage a series of consultations with the private sector with the goal of identifying how governments can be more effective in managing its IT spend.

One of those ways, said Andrew Moffat, president of the Society of Collaborative Opportunities and Advancement of Professionals (SCOAP), which recently merged with CATA, is for the government to be in the business of outputs, not inputs.

“What the government is doing now is it’s trying to buy the components to make bread, instead of specifying that what it really wants is a loaf of bread,” he said.

Moffat said the issue has been exacerbated over the past decade or so due to the increase in the number of computer science specialists – up to some 18,000 today from about 8,000 about eight years ago — in the federal government.

And, he said, they’re sometimes being put to work on essentially reverse-engineering commercial software.

“We see that quite a bit, where they’ve got lots of IT guys hanging around with not a lot to do and they decide to build,” he said. “Well, managing commercial code takes more than just having a bunch of IT guys there. We’ve seen quite a bit of innovation coming from government and we’ve seen a lot of risk-taking. We’ve seen lots of really good, exciting things come out of government, but we’ve also seen some disasters.” 

Successful government IT projects happen, he added, when government does what it does best: managing. “When they get people to come in and define the requirements — they co-ordinate but they let the vendors do their thing – they are successful. Where they try to do it themselves or create one-of customizations, they don’t do as well.”

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