How can public sector executives get back their 'ICT mojo'?

By David Donaldson

June 21, 2017

“How many executives would stick up their hand to lead a multi-million dollar ICT project because they see it as an exciting career enhancing opportunity?” asked Dr Steve Hodgkinson, to laughs from the audience.

“Not many, and that’s a real problem.”

Major stuff ups with big technology projects in government have become common enough that executives now lack confidence, the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services chief information officer told a Trans Tasman Business Circle lunch on Monday.

“Public sector executives have lost their ICT mojo.”

These embarrassing failures mean it’s a “perfectly rational learned behaviour” to stay as far away from big tech projects as possible, says Hodgkinson.

Yet ICT is more important than ever to government, so vacating the field is not an option. The way to combat this problem is to use some equally rational, but more positive, learned behaviours.

This is where Hodgkinson’s favoured method of ‘platform plus agile’ comes in handy — it offers the chance to create a ‘minimum visible product’ quickly and cheaply.

“Nobody will trust you just by talking about it,” he explains.

“One of the reasons I say minimum visible product always trumps raving speeches, powerpoint presentations and word documents is because you can see something tangible that actually has been delivered. That’s simple logic, it’s the way to rebuild the confidence of executives.

“If they can see a track record from small but important projects that have been delivered in a more agile way, without hassle, without grief, without drama, then actually they start to lean in a bit when you come with the next marginal proposal.”

Hodgkinson offers platform plus agile as the antidote to what he calls the linear mindset — government’s standard way of doing things.

“Linear thinking presupposes that it’s possible to conceive of an idea for something new — a new business system, a new policy, a new service — and then implement it in one go, and use it without change for many years,” he says.

“I have systems in my department that are perhaps as many as 15 years old. There’s the expectation that those systems built 15 years ago — and changed not too much in the meantime — are still fit for purpose for today’s way of doing things.”

This is the mindset that sees agencies writing up big business cases and detailed specifications before speaking to any potential contractors. It’s about tight governance: each project is managed as a kind of unique, one-off event; risk is controlled through detailed design and inflexible process.

This type of approach is necessary for some kinds of projects, but often slows down ICT projects and renders them unable to adapt to the inevitable new ideas and problems that pop up along the way. The excessive avoidance of risk can become a risk itself.

The platform plus agile approach

The alternative for many projects, and especially IT, is to use a cloud services platform as a base from which to work in an agile way. The increasing availability of these platforms has “caused a fundamental shift in the art of the possible, because it’s no longer necessary to own and control infrastructure and applications to get stuff done,” says Hodgkinson.

They enable agile working because “substantially the solution already exists before anyone starts. You don’t have to procure a complex bundle of things. What you have to do is learn how to become an intelligent consumer of something that already exists.”

Depending on your agency’s policies and contracts, it can save months on having to go through procurement processes each time. It also means your in-house team is already up to speed on how the tools work when you start.

“What that’s all about is empowering common sense for the first time,” he argues.

“Starting with a dialogue around what do we need, and really quickly getting into what can be done. Okay now that we know what can be done, how does that change what we think about what we need? That’s made possible by platforms that have substantially pre-existing functionality, a minimum visible product.”

This enables ‘compound organisational learning’, which he likens to compound interest, where agencies can go through much faster cycles of learning, asking questions like: what can you do? Did it work? Didn’t it work? What can we change?

The Victorian Housing Register, allowing anyone to apply for public housing on the myGov portal, was built using this approach, as was the new family violence triage portal, to automate information sharing between Victoria Police, government departments and NGO service providers. Both were delivered in a six month time frame “with not huge money”.

The successes so far using this platform plus agile approach is gaining currency, says Hodgkinson. “I think people are starting to pay attention, because actually it just works.”

So his advice to help executives get their mojo back?

“Get started, learn what works, do more of what works, and stop doing the things that don’t work.”

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