friday-rant
Project Management and Collaboration

Rant: Government IT projects - the gift that keeps on giving

While I was casting around for a way to begin this article, an old fortune cookie application threw up the following words of wisdom, quite by chance:

“Chism's Law of Completion: The amount of time required to complete a government project is precisely equal to the length of time already spent on it.”

I'd like to propose Cruickshank's amendment to Chism's law: "The same applies to the cost."

It's easy to be scathing about government IT projects, because the profligate waste is simply beyond belief. I won't spend any time listing some of the major howlers here, since a web search for 'government IT project fail' will tell you all you need to know. For extra depression points, remember that it's taxpayer's money being wasted; money that could be put to much better use elsewhere.

I thought the worst was behind us, but I have several friends who work on government IT projects today. All of them tell heady tales of waste, inadequate specification, overspend, empire-building and good old-fashioned stupidity. It was happening when I was in the UK and it's happening here in New Zealand. I've no doubt it's the same elsewhere in the world.

But instead of simply repeating some of the stories, I'd like go through the underlying problems one by one and then suggest some solutions. Inevitably, the problems are people.

 

1. The empire-building project manager

Hired for a three-month project and spends the next 90 days calculating how to extend it to 10 years. Discovers the best solution is to dramatically up-scale the project, bring all of his (it's nearly always a man) mates on board and create a pyramid of ever-lasting incompetence. Makes liberal use of IT buzzwords and unconvincing friendliness to blind the naive client to his innate psychopathy and greed.

 

2. The incompetent analyst

Overwhelmed by the smell of money floating around him, the analyst forgets common sense entirely. Instead of proposing a simple, functional solution that would take one programmer three weeks to implement, the analyst – 'helped' by friendly pressure from the project manager – recommends a ground-up build of a bespoke system requiring 20 people, three years and tens of millions of whatever the local currency happens to be. In line with Cruickshank's amendment to Chism's law, the cost projection is an order of magnitude too small.

 

3. The budget-protecting head of department

We all know how it works. If you spend too little one year then your budget is cut the following year. Fortunately it's impossible to spend too little in IT. The only way is up. Add another zero and get it signed off.

 

4. The corporate leech

It's so much easier to extract cash from governments than private-sector businesses, since the latter might demand petty little things like SLAs, value for money, adherence to deadlines and effective non-performance penalties. Brought in by the project manager to add credence to the project and help siphon off the money, the corporate IT flogger is persuasion incarnate. "Hey, just look at our track record (but not too closely). We've worked on all these projects in the past, so we can certainly help with yours." Subtext: "Those projects all failed. Yours will too. But we'll get richer in the process."

 

5. The weak-willed manager

"But we've already spent 20 million. If we stop now we'll lose the lot! Just another five million and then we'll be ready to go live. Or at least beta. I'm sure of it!"

 

6. The glory-chasing minister

Has his/her legacy firmly in mind. "All we have to do is convert the entire nation's health/driving/DNA/location/psychological/pet records to a single database to be stored on an unsecured USB drive. The benefits will be tremendous and my name will go down in history." As, for entirely different reasons, it surely will.

 

7. The overpaid and inexperienced programmer

Not yet good enough to get a job in the private sector – at least not on these wages – they vent their inexperience and lack of ability on the public purse. They're slowly learning new skills, but at the expense of the project's already slim chances of success.

After decades of observing government IT projects and an eye-opening year spent working on them, I'm resigned to the grim reality. Whenever one of my friends says, "Hey, you'll never guess what stupidity the project manager came up with today," I try to think of the dumbest, most ridiculous combination of technologies and strategies I can imagine. I still fall far short of the bizarre reality.

 

I mentioned potential solutions to this chaotic mess, but actually there are only two:

1. Everybody listed above has to gain integrity, ability, intelligence, accountability and humility. This will probably not happen.

2. We all give up and accept that 'government IT project' is a euphemism for 'misdirected fiscal stimulus on a massive scale,' but I suspect this has already happened.

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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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