Government IT Initiatives are Lagging; Project Managers Must Get Stakeholders on Board—And Up To Speed
BY NOVID PARSI
PORTRAITS BY JAVIER PIERINI
Horacio Barbier, PMP, City of Vicente López, Vicente López, Argentina
PHOTO BY RICHARD B. LEVINE/ALAMY STOCK
A worker at a Census 2020 information table in New York, New York, USA
GOVERNMENTS are behind the curve when it comes to digital transformation. As the private sector takes dead aim at projects implementing artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and a wide range of other disruptive technologies, public entities around the world continue to be slow movers. Only 17 percent of government CIOs plan to increase their investment in digital business initiatives, compared with 34 percent of CIOs in the private sector, according to a 2019 Gartner survey.
Even those government project teams taking innovative approaches to keep pace with change are running into obstacles. For instance, as the U.S. government prepares to launch its first online census in 2020, teams are pulling out all the stops to mitigate risks, from security to accuracy to access. So it’s no surprise that the project’s budget already is soaring, with IT spending alone increasing from US$3.4 billion to US$4.8 billion, because government leaders underestimated costs and outsourced a bulk of the IT work to third-party contractors.
“In general, governmental organizations have long been behind the private sector in technology,” says Horacio Barbier, PMP, director of modernization and digital government, City of Vicente López, Vicente López, Argentina. “Luckily, little by little, governments are focusing on efficiency and speed. It’s necessary to invest much more in training for IT projects to ensure growth of the country and the possibility of having a better answer to society’s needs.”
—Horacio Barbier, PMP, City of Vicente López, Vicente López, Argentina
The most forward-thinking public-sector project teams are rethinking their approach to tech, according to a 2019 Deloitte report.
Rather than piloting IT innovations one tool at a time, government teams in countries such as Estonia are pioneering new technologies in integrated programs, deploying machine learning across the enterprise, developing automated processes that are repeatable to reduce human error and looking for opportunities to expand wireless networks to meet the growing demand for connectivity.
Such initiatives require effective collaboration across the board, including with private-sector IT contractors. They also raise other engagement challenges that can hinder funding, security and long-term benefits. Government IT project managers must educate internal and external stakeholders on their projects’ demands, including the need to develop people who have the right technical and people skills to collaborate with private contractors.
UP TO SPEED
Disruptive IT projects, by definition, introduce something new to public agencies that traditionally are reluctant to embrace the unknown. That means project managers need to provide a reality check for wary stakeholders, says Kamran Changezi, PMP, senior project manager, Victorian Energy Upgrades program, Essential Services Commission, Melbourne, Australia.
Mr. Changezi manages a tech project scheduled to be completed in October 2020 that will upgrade the registry system for the state of Victoria’s program to reduce greenhouse emissions by establishing an annual liability for energy retailers. Every year, each energy retailer must generate or purchase energy-efficiency certificates, created when energy consumers take steps to reduce their energy and water use. Those activities often involve replacing existing technology with more efficient alternatives. The upgrade project will move the current system to an enterprise-grade cloud services platform that can scale up or down to meet needs and can adapt to the latest technologies such as AI and machine learning. The new system also will perform advanced analytics to help the agency make better business decisions.
OF GOVERNMENT CIOS PLAN TO INCREASE THEIR INVESTMENT IN DIGITAL BUSINESS INITIATIVES, COMPARED WITH 34% OF CIOS IN THE PRIVATE SECTOR.
Source: 2019 Gartner survey
Yet some stakeholders were resisting the change, Mr. Changezi says. “There’s a belief that our requirements are so complex that no other system or platform would be able to satisfy our needs,” he says. “This belief or fear strengthens resistance to change, which can greatly impact the success of the project.”
—Kamran Changezi, PMP, Essential Services Commission, Melbourne, Australia
Mr. Changezi secured external support to overcome that internal challenge. He invited a respected CIO of a larger governmental agency to share his successful experience with a cloud services platform upgrade. He asked a senior leader from the cloud services provider to demonstrate project benefits and the platform’s available tools, such as cognitive technologies. And Mr. Changezi engaged a third-party contractor to study his agency’s requirements and complete a feasibility report for the new platform. His investment in managing the change helped ensure his stakeholders accepted it.
“After a series of presentations, workshops and Q&A sessions, our project stakeholders are much more confident about the direction we are taking,” he says.
Teams also have to build stakeholder trust in technology, says John Quinn, PMP, CIO and secretary of digital services, State of Vermont, Northfield, Vermont, USA. That’s been a mission-critical task ever since 2017, when Vermont’s governor signed an executive order establishing a secretary of digital services. The agency aimed to increase efficiency, improve transparency and centralize the project management functions. Projects have included a pilot that uses AI to help the state’s transportation agency predict road and bridge degradation.
But even with the backing of the state’s highest-ranking elected official, the digital services team needed to get government stakeholders on board with the value of project management and explain that project managers are responsible for much more than just mitigating project risks.
“Part of our job is to educate the state government on what we do and how project teams are supposed to work,” Mr. Quinn says. In the past couple of years, that education has involved, for instance, helping agencies understand why business cases add value and then helping build the business case for each project. His team also helps agencies proactively plan for resources and cost estimates, and plan the steps that are necessary to track those metrics throughout every project.
—John Quinn, PMP, State of Vermont, Northfield, Vermont, USA
Now the agencies have a better appreciation for project management—and a greater confidence when it comes to decision making on IT projects. “What we see from project management is better outcomes,” Mr. Quinn says.
FORCE OF CHANGE
Building a pattern of better outcomes is one way to get elected officials—those who have primary control of the purse strings and the power to improve regulations—to clear bureaucratic roadblocks that can slow or even halt momentum for government IT initiatives. Whether teams must lobby lawmakers for an uninterrupted funding stream or convince legislators to change laws, having the support of political players allows teams to more easily adapt on the fly.
“Our project management office has helped educate the legislature about good project management practices and outcomes and having a realistic schedule,” Mr. Quinn says. “We’ve been educating the committee about what it takes to do projects like this.”
When Vermont’s government launched a project in 2018 to create an enterprise resource planning system that would consolidate the financial systems of 50 school districts, the state decided at the last minute to switch participation from voluntary to mandatory. But the legislative education committee behind the initiative kept the original project end date of July 2019. So Mr. Quinn’s team met with the committee to push for a more realistic project end date of July 2022. The team successfully bolstered its argument with user feedback. The team launched a data-conversion pilot project with three schools this year to make it clear to the committee that a shift was needed: Each school said it needed more time for the data conversion and more time to train staff to use the new system.
A staff meeting at Vermont's Agency of Digital Services' project management office
There’s no greater challenge for government teams than securing the proper tech talent. “We have trouble finding qualified resources,” Mr. Quinn says. That means project managers need to seek internal and external solutions.
His agency tackles the talent gap by focusing on training existing talent and recruiting new blood. The agency offers lean software development training. And it insists that project management talent get a crash course in agile approaches. Further, the agency encourages project managers by covering some of the costs to earn Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification.
In terms of recruiting, his agency has worked on projects with the state’s human resources department to update its system so applications can be submitted via smartphone and other mobile devices. The agency also has advocated for having recruiters who specialize in hiring IT project managers. For Mr. Quinn, the challenge is exacerbated by the lower salaries typically offered in the public sector. So his agency sharpens its pitch to IT project manager candidates with a promise of having better work-life balance than they might experience in the private sector, he says.
Working with turnkey outside talent presents different challenges—namely ensuring that contractors and other third-party specialists have a firm grasp on the layers of complexity associated with public-sponsored IT projects, Mr. Barbier says. That was the primary challenge when his team took on a six-month project to build a new data center last year for the city.
“The most complicated challenge involved the coordination of the contractors’ different tasks since each task affected all the others,” he says. He addressed that potential risk through rigorously tracking the tasks performed by the three main contractors and their various dependencies. Such careful monitoring revealed the need to adjust the project scope—first with minor tasks, then with more significant issues, such as installing a power generator that wasn’t part of the original scope with the data center. These changes forced Mr. Barbier to increase the budget and extend the schedule.
The team also had to make changes to its communication structure to improve engagement among external resources. At one point, Mr. Barbier realized that all three contractors were working on their own rather than in tandem.
“When we detected this problem, we realized that perhaps we had underestimated the planning of communications management,” he says. “Luckily, it was possible to adjust the process, and we were able to improve this aspect.”
Project reinforcements also can help zero in on critical risks that government IT teams might otherwise overlook. For example, Vermont’s data services agency established a security team to ensure privacy measures are in place to identify and mitigate security risks on every project. The agency created a procurement advisory team that includes an information-assurance team member reviewing each project contract to make sure it complies with the agency’s security standards. While such team members increase costs, the long-term benefits are easy to measure and justify, Mr. Quinn says. “We do all we can to protect our citizens’ data.” PM
DATE WITH DISRUPTION
Three examples of how governments are taking on digital transformation:
Argentina: Betting on Blockchain
In March, the country’s government announced it would match investments of US$50,000 for up to 10 blockchain projects each year over the next four years. Yet these projects will have to clear a hurdle that’s not unique to Argentina: developing and retaining tech talent.
India: Making Safe Connections
Since 2015, the government has been undergoing a digital transformation, delivering affordable internet access and a digital identity to every citizen. Yet policymakers are scrambling to keep up with the slew of tech projects, particularly around data privacy and security. The government recently presented a draft of data privacy standards that will ramp up the need for government teams to identify and manage new requirements.
United States: Joining Forces
With government budgets strapped, cities and states across the United States are looking to public-private partnerships to enable their digital transformations. In 2018, the City of Los Angeles and AT&T announced a public-private partnership to explore new tech projects, such as installing digital kiosks that will provide access to city services or adding environmental sensors to monitor air quality.
ESTONIA’S AGILE ADVANTAGE
Estonia’s reputation as a first-mover for government IT projects is well-earned. The country’s e-Residency program, launched in 2014, made Estonia the first nation to offer virtual residency to anyone in the world so they could conduct digital business there. Since then, 50,000 people have become e-residents, with 6,000 e-businesses established—all the result of an ambitious initiative that used agile delivery approaches to generate user feedback.
But all those feedback loops revealed a major obstacle for long-term growth. The e-Residency team knew its customers regularly used fintech accounts rather than traditional bank accounts. Yet by law, only an Estonian bank could document that someone had enough funds to establish a company there. So in 2018, the team launched a one-year initiative to change the law.
The project became an all-out lobbying campaign as much as an agile tech development. Yet stakeholder engagement had to go well beyond meeting with civil servants, says Kaspar Korjus, CEO, Borderless Nation States, and former managing director, e-Residency program, Government of Estonia, Tallinn, Estonia.
“Usually civil servants are against innovation because it increases their risks and they don’t get paid more—it’s just extra work for them,” he says.
—Kaspar Korjus, Borderless Nation States, Tallinn, Estonia
So Mr. Korjus’ team went to the top—discussing the law and the overall project’s benefits with the prime minister. The team also engaged ministers of finance, justice and internal affairs, along with private stakeholders, such as the country’s banking representatives. The team applied political pressure by having direct outreach with the media to educate the public and powerful media influencers about the issue.
“We made this project very public,” Mr. Korjus says. Here’s why: If a minister starts to receive a lot of media requests about a topic, politicians tend to pay more attention to the issue. After four months of discussions and media coverage, politicians backed the change in law and advocated for it with Parliament. By the end of last year, Parliament passed a law allowing e-residents to use fintech accounts. The team used an iterative approach to generate user feedback that was shared with political leaders to gain support for the law. “We created a feedback loop to learn from our customers about what to do and what to change,” Mr. Korjus says. His team gathered that feedback through email, online forums and in-person events.
The scope of those efforts went beyond lobbying efforts and extended to general improvements the team sought to make to the e-residency program, he says. For example, in 2018, the team launched a three-month pilot project for a networking platform for e-residents. After collecting input from about 1,000 users, the team determined the platform was not useful to its customers. Existing networking platforms provided better solutions and features, so the team decided not to pursue the platform.
“That’s usually not what happens in government agencies, where they choose to do something and then release it,” Mr. Korjus says. “This beta project showed us that this platform was not the best solution, so we killed it—and saved years of work.”
When it comes to digital transformation, building project leaders and public support can accelerate how quickly governments catch up.
Government CIOs’ primary objectives for prioritizing digital technology initiatives are:
FUNDING THE FUTURE
Technologies that government CIOs are investing in most in 2019:
43% Business intelligence/data analytics
39% Cloud services/solutions
33% Core system improvements/transformations
26% Software development/upgrades
23% Infrastructure/data centers
22% AI/machine learning
21% Technology integration
20% Customer/user experience
19% Mobile applications
Technologies that government CIOs believe have the most impact to change operations:
EYE ON EFFICIENCY
Portion of functions that governments already have automated:
But many government organizations lack the leadership needed to deliver effective digital transformation projects.
Getting public stakeholder support for IT projects is critical. And the public is warming to the notion of governments using the latest digital technologies.
Knowing which tech uses give the public pause can help teams identify project opportunities and risks. For AI, there are limits to public support:
Sources: 2019 CIO Agenda: Government Insights, Gartner, 2019; The Transformational CIO, Harvey Nash and KPMG, 2018; 2018 BCG Digital Government Benchmark: Citizens’ Perspectives on the Use of Artificial Intelligence by Government, The Boston Consulting Group, 2018; “Citizen Enthusiasm for Personalized Government Services and Digital Innovation Are on the Rise, Accenture Survey Finds,” Accenture, 2018