Government ICT: The Case for Change

stormI’ve worked with government for over two decades and in that time I, like a lot of us in the industry, have been frustrated by the seeming lack of progress in the delivery of ICT services. Either to the government department itself or the citizen. There are many reasons for that and there are many answers as to how this can change. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I want to try and highlight the challenges, opportunities, and potential solutions to moving government ICT forward. So I’m going to try over the next few blogs to highlight that, and I welcome your feedback.

The opportunity to be world-leading in Government ICT is there, however it is held back, not by the ICT organisation often, but by the environment in which ICT is severely constrained. There are multiple factors that stop an ICT organisation inside a government department from being more successful, more innovative, and more connected.

It is easy for mainstream media to sit on the outside and take potshots at something that a) they don’t understand and b) are spun to maximise bottom line advertising revenue. If we want an example of this, we need look no further than the “security and privacy” issues of ACC, MSD, and EQC, all of which highlighted deficiencies inside the business of the agency, not the ICT organisation (the technology was doing exactly what it was designed to do).

That media coverage in turn spurns a political reaction from a government that is one-step removed, in fact, let’s be honest, multiple steps removed, from an agency’s ICT organisation. The ICT organisation is forbidden from responding publicly to the media when often they have the ammunition to counter the debate. However, due to old protocols the ICT organisation is gagged and the PR machines inside the government department attempt to deal with the problem, often with hilarious results.

I have never come across an ICT group that I have worked in, or with, who go to work to do a bad job. In fact, in most cases, they are a lot more loyal than than those you find in private enterprise. They need to be. They get paid less, have less resource, have less voice in the business, and must fight tooth and nail for the most simplest of things such as computer maintenance and upgrades. Often, the interesting work and projects are given to parts of a government department to carry out, or external companies, those who have no experience with ICT, rather than the CIO and their teams, where they would be assured of more success.

My first introduction to the irrationality of Government ICT was many years ago when I joined a large central government department. No sooner had my feet hit the ground (I’d just been introduced to the team) I was pulled into a meeting to talk about what needed to be purchased prior to the end of the financial year. The ICT organisation had around seven million dollars left in their budget with a month until the end of the year, if they didn’t spend that money, then next year, the financial department would reduce the budget by that amount. So the meeting set about buying a lot of infrastructure and software to ensure that didn’t happen, as the following year they would need the money for some refresh work.

The net result of this was that for several months, we had several million dollars of infrastructure sitting in our data centre dock, waiting for a window to install. I was astounded. How was it that if ICT needed something, given some warning, they couldn’t source funding for it? This kind of policy is commonplace, even today, there is a feeding frenzy of vendors around May and June, and shows that older government agency policy drives poor practice in ICT.

The ICT organisation, in general, is not seen as a business unit in its own right inside an agency, its seen as a sunk-cost, intangible benefit, expensive department that should spend less money.  This is because the accountant manages ICT. Not the strategic arm of an agency or the Chief Executive themselves. It’s a poor practice and leads to “shadow IT”, whereby other departments within an agency purchase their own IT services, more and more via Cloud.

The 1990’s saw an explosion of outsourcing, to which we’ve never quite recovered. It gave rise to two practices that have roundly failed. The first is “outcomes based” ICT services whereby we notionally don’t care how something is delivered, as long as it is delivered. This has proven to be an expensive exercise. In fact, generally the promises of outsourcing have failed. It’s more expensive, and its less innovative. Secondly, outsourcing (thanks to Gartner) has seen the rise and rise of the “ICT Procurement Manager.” A role that has been misinterpreted and holds back the forward movement of ICT in government in a very significant way. Not just in agencies, but across agencies.

The purchase of ICT services, equipment, and software is stuck in the 1980’s. If we want evidence of this, then we need look no further than the IRD who are planning a $1,500,000,000 spend over ten years to replace their legacy systems. The cost, time, and fact that it is being bought from an international company shows that the thinking around purchasing is still skewed to the days of the dinosaur. If you want another example of this, look at the “panel system”, originally designed to lower cost it has driven a sharp increase in expenses.

High profile “ICT” projects have failed. Yet, when we look at them closely, they are often run by departments outside of the ICT organisation with the CIO left to pick up the pieces at the end.

Downward pressure from central government onto agencies has seen the ICT budget slashed year on year for the last ten years. ICT is forced to prioritise services and “sweat” assets into extinction. Often, systems are not replaced until they are at death’s door, or have actually died, leading to productivity problems and service failures across an entire agency. The government faces an epic problem with hundreds of thousands of Windows XP machines requiring update urgently, and no plan to do so.

We don’t invest in our ICT employees. On average, they are paid 20% less than their public counterparts. We’ve stopped training them. We’ve stopped career paths. We’ve even started trying to employ them, for less again, on fixed term employment contracts. The result has been that we lose people eventually, turnover is high, productivity is low, empty roles are high (this drives that old chestnut the “skills shortage”, which is anything but), and use of contract resource to plug holes is increasing.

All of Government initiatives can be late, un-economic, unwieldy, overly constrained by red tape, legalistic, and hard to access. Worse, some of them are arriving as competing products in a market that is already cutthroat and driven by razor thin margins. However, rather than recognise this and react to it, their is continued pressure by central government on agencies to adopt All of Government services that are often more expensive and less flexible than local products.

The time to investigate, design, and deploy government ICT are too long. ICT is changing so fast that anything less than a six to twelve month development cycle is seen as slow. When government has programmes that are stretched over years, you can be assured that the rate of technology change will outstrip the time it takes to build ICT thereby ensuring perpetual redundancy.

Agencies are a fiefdom. The see other agencies as competition. This means that, except in some rare cases, they do not work well together on anything. The warfare between some agencies is legendary in Wellington. While we have over eight hundred exchange servers we are incapable of agreeing on a single service that could remove 99% of that cost.

This silo’d mentality traps innovation and it also traps data. With the rest of the world moving to releasing public (government) data as a free resource, we still have it stuck deep inside our agencies.

Government ICT is scared to be bold. Failure is rewarded with the damaging of reputation and forced public resignation, rather than a open and honest look at why things went wrong and the recognition that this will happen on the odd occassion. This holds back ICT organisations from taking up new technologies such as Cloud. The FUD factor on new technology is like the wall of ice in Game of Thrones, seemingly unassailable.

The CIO and their teams are trapped at the bottom of a bad pyramid with layers of red tape, compliance, audits, competing priorities, lack of understanding by the business of their role, dictated to by external pressure, with a falling cost structure, and a global revolution of ICT to deal with.

It’s time for change. The geeks will inherit the earth.








  1. Interesting stuff; but would be interested in the data you have used to make up the “facts” in this blog entry. As I currently work in a government department and am well paid and have an average of three training course a year. Some up to a week in length. And there is a desktop update program running, some already have Windows 7 as a desktop. And cloud is here.

  2. I’m guessing you are one of the lucky ones. 🙂

    These are of course generalisations, and there are some Government Agencies that certainly are a lot better than others. The two that spring to mind immediately are Conservation and LINZ.

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