Why do large government IT programmes fail?

When big IT programmes in government fail it’s often due to a combination of interrelated factors.  They contribute to a complex environment that hinders success. Some of the primary reasons for such failures are below, some of which are unique only to the public sector:

Organisational and Cultural Factors

  • Pathological Challenges: These include low cooperation and accountability from leadership and key stakeholders, messengers shot during key meetings, discouraging bridging between departments and functions, making new ideas harder to generate, creating scapegoats when failure happens, and having decisions driven by political behaviours.
  • Bureaucratic Hurdles: Complex administrative processes can slow down decision-making and project progress, novel ideas are viewed as problematic, key messages & communications are neglected, working between departments is difficult, short termism and myopic targets driven by political gains and governance gates drive poor behaviours and generate work away from delivering value based outcomes.
  • Resistance to Change: Resistance to adopting new systems, ideas, approaches, learning, and cooperating can impede implementation and adoption.  Resistance of key stakeholders and users in project activities slows or halts progress and drives up costs e.g. through a lack of willingness, lack of time, lack of skills, or lack of time being made available.
  • Lack of Involvement: Failing to involve key stakeholders and end-users in the development process can result in systems that do not meet their needs or expectations.

Governance and Oversight Issues

  • Lack of Accountability: Insufficient accountability mechanisms can lead to a lack of responsibility for project outcomes.  Roles and responsibilities are not always (well) defined, agreed, understood or are shirked.
  • Ineffective Oversight: Inadequate oversight can allow problems to escalate without timely intervention.  This includes missing effective mechanisms for timely escalations.  It can also mean a lack of ability or willingness to take effective action.
  • Repetition of Inefficient Governance: Meetings have too many attendees to be effective with too few decisions being made.  This suffocates progress.  Stakeholders aren’t fully briefed / have the skills experience or knowledge to be able to make better decisions or are unwilling or unmotivated (politically) to take decisions.  This can lead to costly delays.  Governance is often either missing where it is needed, does not have the right decision-makers involved, or fails to govern at the right level (making decision-making too difficult i.e. information presented is too detailed for the group or the group doesn’t have the authority to make the decision). Effective quality and learning reviews are often missing.  All this can lead to low quality applications, user disaffection and slow delivery.

Poor Requirements Definition and Management

  • Unclear Objectives: Ambiguous objectives and goals can lead to confusion and misaligned efforts.  Levels of ambiguity and changes to objectives can be frequent.  Business problems are not fully understood so that clear objectives can be stated and agreed.
  • Changing Requirements: Frequent changes in project scope or requirements can disrupt progress and inflate costs.  Other challenges include lacking the skills, knowledge and experience to state requirements, capture them accurately, understand how they align to objectives and goals (i.e. their rationale and how they lead to purpose and value), seeing and capturing different requirement levels and having effective processes that allow for learning about what is needed and how this changes over time.
  • Overly Ambitious Scope: Attempting to achieve too much within a single project can lead to unrealistic expectations, unknown risks to manage and eventual failure.
  • Big upfront design: Many large projects and programmes request big up front IT designs, which lead to cost, time and quality disruption further down the line.  The need for these designs is to help with procurement exercises (see below) and the reliance on an un-wielding desire to follow a waterfall-type or other rigid methodologies.  
  • Lack Design Cooperation:  Approaches that aim is to ‘get the requirements capture done’ in 1 exercise only adds to risk in a culture where responsibilities are shirked and risk is not shared.

Inadequate Project Management and Unrealistic Planning

  • Lack of Skilled Management: Insufficient expertise in managing large, complex IT projects can lead to poor decision-making and oversight.  Stakeholder engagement is lower, communication and cooperation is poorer.
  • To recruit and educate in their own image: A lack of skills is made worse where training is based on current cultures, processes and behaviours.
  • Insufficient Risk Management: Failing to identify, assess, and mitigate risks can result in unexpected challenges derailing the project.  Bureaucratic cultures get caught up in logging risks and defining what risks are and aren’t rather than enabling a style of full cooperation to identify what could go wrong, work that is going off track, enabling effective escalations,  deciding corrective courses and pulling together to manage and mitigate.
  • Ineffective Communication: Poor communication between stakeholders, users, engineering and support teams can result in misunderstandings and unmet needs.
  • Unrealistic planning:  Timescales are too often communicated based on optimism and a happy path, leading to over-runs, delays and huge costs increases.
  • Focus on Micro Management of People:  In organisational cultures which are power or rule oriented, a constant focus on individual work creates lower cooperation, fewer ideas and imposes more restrictions on getting work done; for example there is less time for work as more time is in management meetings, or more decisions and actions are checked (which are low value activities and the action of reviewing and un-doing / re-doing work can more than double workload), priorities change by individual managers that adversely affects how teams function and cooperate.  A culture of fear (to get things done) can be created.
  • No Focus on Root Causing: Designs, solutions, ways to solve problems can be filled with assumptions, dependencies , and a lack of understanding with a focus on presenting progress and getting projects to a ‘green’ status.  Any short term fixes can create much bigger problems further down the line.
  • Intense Focus on Cost: This is where leadership becomes embroiled and fixated on managing the financials.  In cultures with complexity this is understandable as the numbers are tracked by accounts so in theory are objective and enable better decision-making (assuming of course the numbers are accurate, see below).  Where there is a fixation on tracking numbers, attention is diverted away from key and more holistic programme objectives.

Funding and Budgetary Constraints

  • Underfunding: Inadequate funding can result in insufficient resources to complete the project successfully.  Further delays are caused to agree budget increases, spending authorisation and completing procurement and on-boarding exercises.  There are also delays and cost increases where programmes temporarily pause (for example when notices for stopping work have to be given, losing 3rd party personnel who move to other projects, undertaking further recruitment to replace personnel that have left, or needing extra time to on-board new people when work starts back up).
  • Cost Overruns: Poor budgeting and financial management can lead to cost overruns, causing projects to be scaled back or abandoned.  
  • Lack of Robust Accounting and Financial Software:  As part of programme tracking and reporting, where new software is being implemented, bespoked or customised, or where new financial processes are being setup and managed, programme financial tracking can be inaccurate, untimely and and subject to many manual errors.  Some programmes, need longer to get the technology they need in place to create budgets, track invoices and payments.  This prolongs inaccurate reporting leading to poorer or delayed decision-making or cost overruns.

Technological Challenges

  • Legacy Systems Integration: Difficulty in integrating new systems with existing legacy systems can cause technical complications, delays and cost overruns.
  • Over-reliance on Unproven Technology: Utilising cutting-edge technology where the need has not been adequately understood, and the deployment inadequately tested can lead to many unforeseen issues e.g the use of cloud technology.
  • Scalability Issues: Failing to design systems that can handle expected growth in users or data volume can result in performance bottlenecks.
  • Inadequate Technology for Programme Team Members: Issues are caused when there are too few tools or licenses; for example with communication, collaboration, document or collateral sharing, planning, controlling finances or managing security.  This is worse when 3rd parties are involved and need to collaborate.
  • Data issues need addressing: Lack of skilled resource leads to planning problems and cost increases caused in part by lots of manual intervention.

Procurement and Contracting Issues

  • Inflexible Contracts: Rigid contracts that do not allow for changes in scope or requirements, or that are locked into deliverables or licences that are no longer needed or are less relevant, can lead to projects that are unable to adapt to new information or circumstances.  Sometimes these contracts undergo a lengthy and costly negotiation process, so become even harder to move away from (knowing that a change to a new contract or alter an existing one is also time consuming, emotional and costly).
  • Inadequate contract preparation time and too much time spent on negotiation: Too much time being spent on contract wording and managing perceived risk and too little time spent trying to understand and explore requirements.
  • Vendor Lock-In: Dependence on a single vendor or large key players can limit flexibility and increase costs if the vendor(s) fails to deliver as promised.  Similarly, being rigid by sticking with ‘preferred suppliers” even when they do not have the resources or skills to complete activities leads to frustration, time and budget overruns and lowers quality.  Lock-in also occurs when licenses are bought in bulk up-front and no longer required.  This is particularly ridiculous when vendors sell so-called cloud products, promoted for flexing services to demand whereas in reality licenses are bought in bulk, upfront with multi-year lock-ins.  Given the complexity to implement some of these cloud solutions, it can become very difficult to move away from them quickly i.e. by switching to another provider.  For example, it can be difficult or impossible to get data out of these systems that is required to switch to an alternative provider.
  • Political Procurement Practices: When large-scale procurement decisions are made based on power or rule based cultures (as opposed to programme performance orientation), it can lead to project disruptions, delays, major cost increases, or even cancellations.
  • Partners That Perpetuate Government Cultures: Managing inflexible contracts, programme overruns, changing priorities, lack of skilled or available government personnel, multiple stakeholders with differing priorities, dealing with intricate legacy systems, scope creep, organisational cultural challenges, and highly complex requirements, will not be aided, managed well or mitigated by 3rd parties who see the financial benefits of perpetuating them by operating with these complexities.  It is not a benefit to programmes to bring in more personnel who promote and help train existing government cultures.

Examples of Government IT Program Failures, Findings and Recommendations

The question is, how to best address these significant challenges.  

If you’re stuck in a maze, looking for a new way forward and would like to get in touch, we’re happy to share ideas and chat..

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