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E-gov please, and step on it

by Richard Bray

Five years ago, the climate for large-scale federal IT systems procurement could hardly have been worse. Year after year, the Auditor General (AG) had been hammering away at how poorly the government was managing its purchases of information technology.

In October 1995, for example, four major systems under development fell under the AG's microscope. Chosen because they were complex, long-term and important, their combined $500 million budgets accounted for almost one quarter of all spending on large IT projects at the time. The audit team concluded that only one of the four projects was being managed effectively. Another was terminated. A third had failed to achieve user buy-in after six years of development. The fourth project needed major corrective action.

As with so many of the AG's reports, the details are less important than the lessons they offer. In October 1995, the Auditor General concluded that, "if current practices are continued and private sector results are applied, a significant number of the 25 large-scale systems (under development), with total planned expenditures of $2.1 billion, will experience serious difficulties, resulting in some cancellations and/or significant cost overruns."

The AG highlighted a number of management-related failings in the introduction of large IT systems, including a lack of effective monitoring, inexperienced project teams and inconsistent user involvement, but two points headed the list: "inadequate analysis of underlying business issues" and "inconsistent support from management and project sponsorship."

Fast forward to February 6, 2001 and the tabling of the Auditor General's December 2000 report, delayed by the general election. Auditor General Denis Desautels is quoted as saying that "the federal government is handling successfully the acquisition of two large information technology projects totaling $120 million."

Nancy Cheng, Principal, IT Audit Operations and an 18-year veteran with the Auditor General's office, supervised the recent look at information technology acquisition. In the October 1995 report, she said, "We did not look at the contracting process and in fact, we attribute the fact that if the contracting were to have been done well, it probably could have helped."

By contrast, in 2000 she said, "The focus of the piece that we just tabled on IT acquisitions deals with the front end - the contracting and the procurement phase only - so it's not so much talking about how well the projects are managed but how you get things going."

The two recent projects the Auditor General looked at were the Export and Import Controls System at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) and the Materiel Acquisition and Support Information System at the Department of National Defence (DND). Those projects were chosen because they use two measures specifically introduced to eliminate failures in IT acquisitions: the Enhanced Management Framework (EMF) and Benefits Driven Procurement (BDP).

"We were looking for large projects that have made use of those concepts to see whether that method is working well, and if not, then what are the new solutions," Cheng said. "From the two projects, and mind you it's only two projects, what we saw was, 'so far, so good,' because certainly at the time we closed off the report both were well on their way to try to meet their targets." Both DFAIT and DND used BDP techniques to define their IT projects and both enjoyed effective, high-level sponsorship.

Unfortunately, while the Auditor General's report praised the projects for remaining on time and on budget, they moved too slowly.

Of the DFAIT and DND projects, Cheng observed, "They are not a very good example to follow. Both of them took upwards of 12 to 18 months, so if that eats so much into your production cycle, then you're not allowing yourself a lot of time to really deliver the product in the end."

She said users must define their needs faster, while departments should bring their procurement experts in earlier, "so that they can talk about the strategy earlier on rather than mull over that once you decide what your needs are." Then, she said, "You also need the help of the suppliers themselves to see if there are ways to try to shorten some of these cycles."

With a 2004 deadline to get most government services online, the Auditor General is once again offering some timely advice.


Richard Bray is an Ottawa-based freelance writer specializing in the IT sector. He has been published in magazines and newspapers in Australia, the United States and Canada and is now editor of Ottawa Computes. Before freelancing, he worked as a producer, reporter and senior writer for CBC in Toronto.


 

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