Beware the IT industry’s ‘fail fast’ mantra: white paper on how local governments do digital

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday October 9, 2018

State and local government agencies should be wary of taking on board too much of the IT industry’s received wisdom about rapid and agile product development as they modernise service delivery, according to research commissioned by the enterprise software maker Infor.

For a lot of IT companies racing to develop new products, it makes sense that the faster you run into problems, the sooner you can find solutions. But it makes sense to go slower when you’re changing the way a council or state government agency delivers a public service, according to Kevin Noonan, the chief public sector analyst at the IT consulting firm Ovum.

“Sometimes, public failure is just bad practice, no matter how fast the recovery is achieved,” Noonan observes in a new white paper, Reinventing State and Local Government Digital Services, which was prepared on behalf of Infor from research on the agencies that deliver most of the local services in Australia and New Zealand.

Not ‘fail fast’ but ‘learn fast’

“It makes sense to go slower when you’re changing the way a council or state government agency delivers a public service.”

“The underlying politics of government service delivery have not changed,” writes Noonan. “In the government sector, it is not only about ‘fail fast’ but ‘learn fast.’

“It is an unfortunate reality that high-profile failures will inevitably lead to high-profile condemnation. Even if the problems are fixed quickly, the consequential pain can linger. When projects fail in a public way, it strikes at the very heart of the public sector’s raison d’être. The ‘fail fast’ doctrine therefore needs to be approached with great care.”

The report contains several case studies from both sides of the Tasman and suggests that internationally, our public services are relatively modern and well regarded. Both nations made the top three of the 2017 International Civil Service Effectiveness Index published by the United Kingdom’s Institute for Government, Noonan points out, and were rated highly in terms of digital service delivery.

At a local level, he adds that Melbourne was named 2017 Intelligent Community of the Year by a think-tank that specialises in that sort of thing, while Ipswich, Brisbane’s western satellite, made the top seven in the same rankings.

But citizens have pretty high expectations of government, especially at the local level. There’s generally a view that long-standing services like garbage collection ought not be too difficult to manage, that it’s not rocket science and when everything works perfectly, that’s as it should be. Any attempt to redesign or renew services that have been delivered for decades using new online self-service options, or perhaps Internet-of-things devices, is expected to work right away, not to be rolled out as a prototype that only half-works until the bugs are ironed out.

Among Noonan’s key recommendations is that “it is crucially important to retain the confidence of the community” in the public sector.

“The public sector has moved a long way from earlier days of absolute risk aversion,” he writes. “Risk management is now accepted as a legitimate part of good management practice. Failing and recovering fast is the latest development.

“However, a fine line must be walked. Any whiff of recklessness or naivety will be dealt with harshly by the community.”

Based on interviews with CIOs and survey data, Noonan observes that agencies delivering at a local level generally described two major approaches — some are “technology-led” while the others prefer to be “citizen-centric” and focus on the changing needs of their constituents — but he does not claim either is superior.

Getting ‘hooked on the technology’

In the former approach, the white paper claims a key risk is getting “hooked on the technology” and using it to paper over the same old processes and procedures.

“Some government agencies are driving change through innovative technology, such as mobile/omnichannel services for citizens or leveraging cloud services to transition quickly to new and innovative services. These agencies are using these new services to inspire innovation and kick-start change. It is a pragmatic approach that recognises the inherent difficulties in changing organisational structures and developing an innovation culture.

“However, the problem with this approach is that some organisations get hooked on the technology and continue to use it as a crutch, without dealing with the internal change management challenges that have not gone away. The successful organisations leverage the new technologies to jolt the enterprise out of traditional thinking, so that new technology drives new thinking.”

Noonan adds that agencies pursuing the latter approach need to avoid getting bogged down in the theory, spending lots of time and money discussing ideas but failing to do much in a practical sense.

“Some government agencies are driving change through a fundamental realignment in favour of the citizen. These government agencies invest their efforts into measuring citizen feedback and driving the human aspects of change. It is about building an internal innovation culture that drives the need for new technologies.

“However, the problem with this approach is that some organisations lose sight of the need to deliver real change. Technology is something tangible, and new technology can be measured. Citizen sentiment and internal innovation culture are much harder to measure.

“Organisations that have handled this badly have invested too much in the theory and too little in delivering practical outcomes. Successful organisations have leveraged their achievements in driving customer intimacy to create opportunities for introducing new solutions and new technologies.”

The white paper also looks at the challenge of reforming internal structures to break down walls between technologists and other areas of state and local government administration.

“Digital technology is no longer something that can be considered separately from the overall business of government, or simply as a backroom activity,” Noonan observes.

Technology is now part of the underlying fabric of every part of government service delivery: from business systems modernisation, to industry policy, to the provision of IoT devices such as smart street lighting.

“However, coordination between these technology pillars is still typically managed through loose alignments, rather than through a concerted effort to bring the strategies together.”

The white paper is available from the Infor website, in exchange for your email address.

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