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Learning from government IT projects

Substantive knowledge is the starting point for successful automation

In mid-April, and effective immediately, Minister Schouten of the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality pulled the plug on the development of a new IT system for the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA). It was the most recent in a long line of government IT projects to fail. This time the sunk costs totalled some 65 million euros. How is it possible that IT projects for government clients keep failing? Rianne Groffen, Director Business Development & Alliances at Yellowstar, gives an explanation and solutions. 

Five years ago, a parliamentary committee of inquiry concluded that the Dutch government often fails to properly manage its IT projects in terms of money, time and even the end result. The committee estimated the costs of this at between one and five billion euros annually. There was, of course, no shortage of suggestions on how to do better. The recent failure at the NVWA and the previous cancellation of the major IT project at the Ministry of Defence, however, prove those suggestions have yet to remedy the problem.

Often the same causes

Many times, the failure of IT projects can be traced back to the same root causes. Starting a project you don't intend to roll-out for many years, for instance, is simply no longer an option in today's climate of ever-accelerating changes to the technological landscape. In the world of IT, five years is an eternity. The only path to successful development is a short-cycle approach in which components are delivered consecutively, one at a time, in coordination with (and to the satisfaction of) the client. By taking the product live step by step, the client maintains control – and it will also be possible to adjust course in mutual consultation.

Uniformity versus custom

A government ministry, or any other large organisation you can think of, is a collection of specialisations. That might mean specific policy areas and implementation tasks, or it could be aspects like human resources, legal, finance, communication, facility management, logistics, and so on. Where is the logic in attempting to cover all these facets with a single uniform ERP system featuring generic solutions? It would be a bit delusional to think that this will yield the best solution for every party. There's no such thing as one standard to cover everything – however much some players would like to convince us there is. After all, every professional field has its own specific requirements. These days, smart solutions (and partial solutions) based on internet technology can very easily be linked to an ERP or other system in real time, without the need for any concessions in terms of security. In this way, custom solutions go hand in hand with the desire for oversight, control and clarity.

Subject matter expertise is what counts

The third pitfall is the fact that the people tasked with managing IT projects are typically IT experts. While this may sound logical, in the end IT is only a tool. The real value is in being a sparring partner for the subject matter experts at the client's company. These are often individuals with many years of experience who are familiar with every detail. They have the clearest picture of which aspects need to be automated. Such experts are involved in virtually any project, obviously. Still, quite often it's the IT specialist who actually takes the decisions – and does so based on technical concerns. Which still leaves the question of how well he or she really understands what is necessary. IT is a serious profession, of course, but subject matter expertise regarding the business in question is the starting point for successful automation.

Step by step

In addition, the decision to realise a new IT system is often lumped in with a desire to adjust the existing work processes. To put it plainly: this is biting off more than you can chew. Simultaneously developing a new system and trying to introduce a new working method is more than anyone can manage properly at once. It’s a much better idea to automate the existing processes first, step by step, and then work to gradually make these processes smarter. When you choose a generic IT architecture in the preliminary stages, it is possible to do so without additional costs or limitations in terms of the end result.

People are key

Ultimately, any IT project will succeed or fail based on the degree of commitment on the work floor. The people there must be willing to work with the new system. If the wrong aspect is automated, it will create resistance among them as well. For this reason, it's important to involve employees in the update and cultivate their support for the process starting in an early stage. When employees perceive IT as a form of support, and under the aforementioned conditions, automation can often be enjoyable in and of itself – and therefore successful.

So, is what we've described here the definitive solution for ensuring success in IT projects for government clients? While there's no such thing as a full guarantee, short-cycle step-by-step automation featuring custom solutions that are managed based on the subject matter and which put the employees in the driver's seat are surely a solid foundation for success.

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