Reformat and reboot

After a series of public IT project troubles, the U.S. and U.K. governments are upgrading their project management skills and processes


Government-sponsored IT projects are making headlines—but the news is rarely good. The stories often highlight high-priced cancellations, with taxpayers footing the bill.

For instance, the United Kingdom's Home Office sunk nearly £350 million in a computer system that had to be scrapped in 2013. The next year, the U.K. government reported that successful delivery of 41 of the 199 projects in its £500 billion portfolio was “in doubt.” In the United States, the botched launch of the federal website in 2013 brought new attention to IT project shortcomings. The annual cost of failed U.S. government IT projects is estimated to be as high as US$20 billion.

The annual cost of failed U.S. government IT projects is estimated to be as high as US$20 billion.


These failures have many observers asking this question: If tech startups can successfully launch complex software products with relatively little money, why can't well-funded government IT projects experience similar success?

Looking to save taxpayer dollars and improve outcomes, both countries are now trying to streamline their costly public-sector projects. In the U.S. Congress, a bipartisan group of legislators introduced a bill last July calling for IT procurement reform—specifically, changes that would make it easier for smaller, newer software companies to win some of the US$80 billion the U.S. federal government spends annually on IT projects. The proposal hasn't yet passed, but that hasn't stopped an investor in California's Silicon Valley from creating a US$23 million venture capital firm focused on funding tech startups that intend to seek contracts for government projects. Ron Bouganim launched Govtech Fund, based in San Francisco, California last September.

“You can debate policy all you want, but these days when you want to roll out policies, it turns out that technology plays a really important part,” he told Fast Company.



“If it takes you years to implement a new technology, it's obsolete by the time you're done in many cases.”

—Andy Robinson, ICF International Inc., Fairfax, Virginia, USA

In an increasingly digital world, the quality of government services can be limited by the skills of the project team rolling out IT systems. To tap the best project talent in a rapidly evolving sector, the U.S. government needs to make it less daunting for smaller and newer organizations to win a project contract, says Jeff Rubenstein, president and CEO, SmartProcure, Deerfield Beach, Florida, USA, which gathers procurement intelligence for both private- and public-sector organizations. To improve project outcomes, he says, red tape needs to be minimized and the power of incumbency needs to be curtailed.

“The default position can't just be what it's always been, which is, ‘Let's just go with the incumbents—if a certain company has been around for 20 years, that means they must build the best websites,’” Mr. Rubenstein says. “That is no longer true. The new challenge is about identifying these younger, vibrant, great-idea companies and giving them a chance to be effective.”

Another frequent problem with government IT projects is their size: They tend to be large, which means long implementation periods, creating increased risks of obsolescence and risk to execution, says Andy Robinson, senior vice president of Fairfax, Virginia-based professional-services consultancy ICF International Inc., a member of PMI's Global Executive Council.

“In the past, I've managed some larger programs that have been big-bang, costing hundreds of millions of dollars. But if it takes you years to implement a new technology, it's obsolete by the time you're done in many cases,” says Mr. Robinson. He is also chair of the Institute for Innovation of the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council, which works with the U.S. government to spur rapid and small-scale IT innovations and make the culture of the federal workforce more progressive.

Operating System Updates

Following a series of high-profile IT project failures, the U.K. government's Major Projects Authority acted to boost senior civil servants’ expertise in managing large projects. In partnership with Oxford University's Saïd Business School and Deloitte, it created the Major Projects Leadership Academy (MPLA) in 2012. Anyone leading a “major project”—meaning a project requiring approval from the country's treasury—must now complete a one-year, part-time program at Oxford. Since its launch, about 120 project leaders have graduated from the academy, with a further 200 enrolled, including leaders of IT projects in the country's major projects portfolio.

“Three years ago, about one-third of the government's major projects were delivered on time and to budget,” says Paul Chapman, EngD, director of Oxford University's MSc in major program management degree program, Oxford, England, and head of the academy. “The MPLA has contributed to improving performance so now this is nearly two-thirds.”



“Three years ago, about one-third of the government's major projects were delivered on time and to budget. Now this is nearly two thirds.”

—Paul Chapman, EngD, Oxford University, Oxford, England

Beyond a stronger focus on practitioner training, the U.K. government is rethinking the way it manages its IT project portfolio. In 2011, it created the Government Digital Service (GDS) as part of the U.K. government's Cabinet Office. On its website, GDS strikes an agile tone familiar to tech companies but unusual for a government agency. “We build a minimum viable product quickly, then iterate wildly,” it boasts.

GDS is currently focused on a “Digital Transformation” program to digitize the 23 most popular government services, such as visa applications and benefit claims. As part of its effort to bring transparency to IT projects, the government created, a website that tracks the status of each project within the digitization effort, which began in 2013.

By building a team of IT experts at GDS, the United Kingdom has in many ways centralized and specialized its IT function. GDS doesn't only execute projects, it also oversees much of the government's IT procurement. The program has fueled centralization across the IT project portfolio, says Robert Atkinson, president, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based IT policy think tank.

“It has taken a lot of the procurement responsibility for bigger IT projects away from individual agencies and given them to GDS, because that's what GDS focuses on—it's their bread and butter.” —Steve Hendershot




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