It’s time to walk away from Shared Services Canada: Smith

Wayne Smith’s strongest critique yet, and yet one likely to be listened to, given the investment of funds and political/bureaucratic capital in Shared Services:

One might argue that it is rational to starve the legacy infrastructure in order to invest in what is seen as the target infrastructure. This might be true if there was actually a comprehensive and fully costed plan with a known (and near) end date. In fact, no one knows how long the transformation will take or what it will cost but we’re looking at decades and billions of dollars, not a year or two and millions of dollars. The legacy infrastructure cannot survive for that long a time without renewal. As the government’s experience with its new web site demonstrates, SSC’s direct cost for the hardware infrastructure will be dwarfed by the costs incurred in the 43 client departments as they modify their systems to make them transportable to the new infrastructure. This need to transform systems will make this a long-haul project indeed.

From the client departments’ perspective this deepening morass is further complicated by the lack of any acceptable governance arrangements around their relationship to SSC. Shared Services Canada is not accountable to its clients. Nowhere is it set down what obligations SSC has to its clients in respect of the base budget already transferred. Cash-starved SSC takes advantage of this situation by constantly redefining, to its own advantage, those things that it is expected to pay for. One of the more egregious examples was the reversal of an earlier Shared Services Canada commitment that it would accept responsibility to expand capacity in line with natural growth in requirements of client departments. So client departments, at the same time they are looking for massive amounts of money to transform systems to work in SSC planned new data centres, find their IT budgets being eaten away by unjustified and unaffordable SSC charges for hardware services. Departments with large budgets and a tendency to surplus funds annually might be indifferent (it’s not their money) but smaller, tightly run departments may find themselves in serious financial difficulty.

Can SSC turn this situation around? One needs only look at the steady stream of failures and ballooning costs of more modest government IT initiatives (Phoenix, Canada.ca web site, SSC’s own stalled email system) as well as the planning to date of SSC itself to conclude this is unlikely. And there are more centralization projects in the pipeline. One is reminded of Albert Einstein’s famous quip about insanity being defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Sometimes what looks like a better outcome on paper is unattainable. Sometimes a collection of human-scale solutions well-integrated into their environments is ultimately more robust and more efficient overall than the grand, massive scheme. There are better things to spend money on than breaking things that work. The government would be better-advised to back away from this initiative, re-think it (look at New Zealand for a more robust approach) and not move forward again until it has a complete, well-programmed and fully costed plan.

So, Canadians should watch the 2017 budget for any new infusion of funds into Shared Services Canada. The government invested hundreds of millions in the 2016 budget to bail out the SSC initiative, but this sum was nowhere near enough. Government IT operations remain at risk and transformation is largely stalled. This is not short term pain for long-term gain, this is an ever-deepening money pit.

Source: It’s time to walk away from Shared Services Canada – The Hill Times – The Hill Times

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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.

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