Shared Services Canada: How politics sabotaged the government’s grand IT plans | Ottawa Citizen

A good long read by James Bagnall regarding Shared Services Canada and the failure of officials and politicians to anticipate, understand and manage the risks involved. Sobering read:

But Shared Services and Phoenix have something in common — a botched introduction caused, it appears, by deep flaws in how government operates. In both cases, cabinet ministers and bureaucrats underestimated complexity and risk. In this, they were hardly unique — it was the scale of the misjudgment that set the federal IT agenda apart.

Standish Group, a Boston-based consulting firm, has been tracking the performance of IT projects since the mid-1990s — with surprisingly little variation in results. The consultants last year examined 50,000 projects worldwide, including government and private sector. About 30 per cent of these efforts succeeded — that is, they were on time, on budget and produced a payoff. Roughly half the projects ran into difficulty and nearly 20 per cent failed outright. The larger and more complex the project, the higher the rate of failure.

Carol Bellringer, the auditor general for the B.C. government, last month offered three key reasons why IT projects fail: Government departments, she said, lack in-house expertise; they attempt “overly ambitious” programs; they justify the latter through “incomplete” business cases.

All three elements were present at the launch of Shared Services. Most of the responsible bureaucrats were not trained in IT, yet were tasked with remaking on the country’s electronic infrastructure. Many also lacked experience in project management with a heavy IT component.

“I don’t know how many times I heard from deputy ministers that they didn’t understand information technology,” said a senior Shared Services official, “They didn’t like IT and they hoped never to see anything to do with IT for the rest of their career.”

Yet it is a group of deputy ministers — the ones in charge of the most IT-intensive departments — who determine the shape and scope of large IT projects. And when it came to launching Shared Services — the centrepiece of the government’s online renewal — the already high risks were exacerbated by a political agenda that stripped it of the capital necessary to get the job done.

It will likely end up costing taxpayers a fortune to set things right again.

A government data centre in Ottawa.
Detail from one of the many legacy data centres in the National Capital Region.JULIE OLIVER /  POSTMEDIA

It had seemed so simple in the beginning. The idea for Shared Services emerged from the Conservatives’ fifth budget, tabled March 4, 2010. The themes were clear: The economic recession was over; it was time to regain control of government spending.

One aspect of the strategy — little noticed at the time — was the launch of a “comprehensive review” of government spending on administration and overhead expenses. This should have offered easy pickings: Federal government employment was near high tide; and most departments and agencies had expanded rapidly.

Daniel Jean, the deputy secretary to the cabinet of the Privy Council Office, was picked to run the review, making it a big deal. The PCO is home to 950 bureaucrats who provide advice to cabinet and the Prime Minister’s Office, and oversee the development of the civil service.

Jean reported directly to Wayne Wouters (pronounced “Waters”) — the clerk of the privy council and the government’s top bureaucrat. Among the members of the review helping out Jean were Benoit Long, a senior manager seconded from the office of the government’s chief technology officer, and Liseanne Forand, then chief operating officer of Service Canada. The latter department offers Canadians online access to pensions and employment insurance.

The administrative services review was carried out in secret, typical PCO modus operandi. Its members roamed the bureaucracy, collecting information and searching for ways to consolidate or standardize how things were done. Some departments were already moving down this path.

…Information technology offered an even richer vein of potential savings. For half a century, computer networks and software applications had multiplied willy-nilly as individual departments and agencies looked after their own needs. The result was a patchwork of incompatible, higher-cost systems. Standardizing common, basic technologies such as email, data storage and telecommunications seemed logical.

It had been tried before. But attempts to centralize the buying of high-tech gear and services had failed, largely because federal departments were allowed to opt out. Most did so. They did want to give up control of their IT networks to a central agency.

The PCO determined this time would be different. The prime minister had the authority to create a new federal department through a simple cabinet approval known as an order-in-council. Most departments, including a reluctant Canada Revenue Agency and Department of National Defence, would be forced to carve out a significant portion of their IT groups and budgets — about 40 per cent on average — and hand them over to Shared Services.

Crucially, the move would not be subject to scrutiny by Parliament. And so Shared Services was born on Aug. 3, 2011.

Speed was demanded of the agency from the start. Minutes of meetings involving senior Shared Services staff are studded with references to “tight schedules” and the “urgency” of getting projects done.

Part of that had to do with the sheer age of the government’s infrastructure. The hardware was in danger of breaking down and the underlying software for many applications was so old that suppliers such as Microsoft, PeopleSoft and Adobe had stopped supporting it.

The faster Shared Services could install new networks, the less money it would be forced to throw at solving the problems caused by older technology.

But that wasn’t the only reason Shared Services was pressed for time. Senior Shared Services officials said the Conservatives were eager to see cost savings, and impressed upon them the importance of securing an early win.

The PCO framed the upgrade in simple terms: Consolidate, modernize and reap the savings. And Shared Services would have nearly a decade to get it done. By 2020, the thinking went, the government of Canada would be able to offer its citizens secure, online services that would be the envy of the world; and Shared Services would be a magnet for attracting the best and the brightest employees in government.

But cabinet — and to some extent the PCO — failed to account for the complexity. They were proposing to create a new organization using bits and pieces from other departments and loading it up with a series of mandates on a tight schedule. The entire production was fraught with risk.

“They had articulated the problem and come up with an organizational response (in the form of Shared Services),” an independent adviser to the PCO said in an interview, “but they completely underestimated the scale.”

Source: Shared Services Canada: How politics sabotaged the government’s grand IT plans | Ottawa Citizen

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

One Response to Shared Services Canada: How politics sabotaged the government’s grand IT plans | Ottawa Citizen

  1. Pingback: Shared Services Canada: How politics sabotaged the government’s grand IT plans | Ottawa Citizen — Multicultural Meanderings | MONSITE

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