IT innovation may be risky business in every organization, but the public policy choices and public management processes that mark the government environment as unique also make it an especially difficult one for IT managers to negotiate.
Layers of complexity compound the challenge of public managers responsible for choosing, funding, and building IT innovations, yet years of research on information system success and failure have thrown relatively little light on the factors that cause success or failure.
Now the Centre for Technology in Government has set out to address this with a new downloadable handbook called Making Smart IT Choices: Understanding Value and Risk in Government IT Investments by Sharon S. Dawes, Theresa A. Pardo, Stephanie Simon, Anthony M. Cresswell, Mark F. LaVigne, David F. Andersen, and Peter A. Bloniarz. (Available at http://www.ctg.albany.edu/publications/guides/smartit2
"Government seems to have even more trouble than the private sector in successfully applying new technology. The public policy choices and public management processes that are part of government make it an especially difficult environment for IT managers. Some contend that bid protests, relatively low government wages, and legislative interference lead large government information technology projects," the authors write.
"This environment brings a layer of risks unique to the public sector. When added to the organizational, operational, and technical risks described above, they present a daunting challenge to public managers responsible for choosing, funding, and building IT innovations."
The authors recognize numerous factors which compound the risk for government IT. For instance the government IT manager will have limited authority to make choices, with their decisions circumscribed by law, limited appropriations, civil service rules, and a variety of legally mandated procedures or court decisions.
There is the fact that government programs are characterized by a multiplicity of stakeholders who often have competing goals, with customers, constituents, taxpayers, service providers, elected officials, professional staff, and others all have some stake in most programs.
There is the uncertainty about the size and availability of future resources weakens the ability of government agencies to successfully adopt new IT innovations, with most government budgets handled on an annual cycle.
And there are factors such as a highly regulated procurement environment, limited capability to design or operate integrated or government-wide programs, and the tendency of government's - whose business is public business - towards extreme risk aversion.
This extremely useful guide says government IT managers seeking to mitigate the risks inherent in these complex decisions must thoroughly understand the problem to be solved and its context, identify and test possible solutions to the problem and evaluate the results of those tests against your service and performance goals. This handbook is designed to help any government manager follow a well-tested methodology for evaluating IT innovations before deciding (with greater confidence) to make a significant investment.
"We've spoken to public managers who consider a project a success if it comes in on time and on budget. Others, who evaluate functionality and usability, might call the same project a failure. Many see failure when, regardless of time and budget, a new system makes it more difficult to do routine and familiar tasks. They have the latest technology but can't get their work done as well as they did before. We've heard about systems that perform beautifully, but can't be supported by in-house staff and therefore continue to generate high costs for consultants to maintain them.
"Failure may be a desirable statewide system that local governments can't use because they lack their own expertise and technical infrastructure to connect to it. Failure has also been described as an on-time, on-budget system with great user interfaces and functionality, but users will not work with it because they don't trust the underlying data sources."
How do you protect against something you can't define? The authors detail an approach that builds knowledge and understanding through careful analysis of the goals, the larger environment, the specific situation, the likely risks, and the reasonable alternatives. The handbook hopes to help IT managers raise useful questions, engage partners, challenge old models, garner support, assess policies, identify risks, consider contingencies, and achieve more successful innovation.
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.