She woke in a haze. She rubbed her eyes with both fists. She took a bite of the dried pizza and a swig of the stale coke next to her floor mattress. She looked at the time on her iPhone. It was 10 a.m. She calculated that she got four hours of sleep over the last 40 hours. She would go for a run before getting ready for a meeting with investors, her mind wandered to a meeting she had last week with Professor Hans Mulder and Ilias Kontakos. She recalled their comments on the state of software projects in government organizations. They gave her a draft of their paper titled “Rethinking the Public Spending on ICT projects.” She remembered the beginning as:

Recently the announcement of the “conclusions and recommendations of the Dutch temporary committee on government ICT projects” revealed an inconvenient truth: The investment in ICT projects has not produced the useful and valuable results expected. On the contrary, the reality is far from what was expected, leading the committee to refer to failures in a series of central government ICT projects and subsequently conclude that taxpayers’ money has been wasted.

She thought it strange they intentionally used the term “ICT investment for value-added public services.” She thought, “I guess it is a term e-government uses in many ways. I am so used to using just IT. Does government have to make everything more complicated?” As she sipped on the cola she brought up the rest of the paper in her photographic mind and started to read more of the first page:

The Dutch committee on government ICT projects was honest enough to describe a situation that is a global phenomenon. For this reason, we would like to take advantage of this report to explain the framework within these failures occurring not only in the Netherlands but worldwide. At the same time, we would like to suggest some ideas as rough guidelines to achieve the expected or better-than-expected results from government ICT projects.

On the way to getting ready for her run she recalled some recent failures with government programs, and then thought about her work over the last four months with her development team. Compared to her app, the government applications seemed simple and transactional. It was just a website, a database, and a transactional engine—nothing really creative or innovative. Yet, she thought, it costs 10 to 20 times what it costs in a commercial space. In contrast, her app was a breakthrough. Her app would change the world.

She and her three other team members had just performed a quality test marathon over the last 40 hours. The team made a number of changes and corrections to the app during that time. She thought that after four months the four-person team had created the perfect app to change the way citizens worked with government services. In her mind, she pictured the shining icon through the gorilla glass and thought it was perfect. She switched thoughts and read in her mind more of Hans and Ilias’ report, the section titled “Scope: Is clear vision possible in a foggy environment?”

What was described in the Dutch report concerning the failure of ICT spending troubles governments around the world, turning the matter into a global phenomenon. For example, a simple glance at e-government benchmarking data and Eurostat statistics about usage of e-government services clearly shows this mismatch, where the supply- side index scores high levels—nearly more than 80% on average—while the average 
usage percentage is now reaching a 40% threshold of the adult population. Similarly, the average usage in OECD countries does not exceed 45%. So the low use leads to low value on public service delivery e-government services are consequently low.

As she ran down the stairs to greenway, she visualized touching the icon with her index finger and the app came alive. It was perfect. She ran through each feature and function and it work perfectly. When her team started developing the app they had a vision, but as they developed the code they pivoted many times as they learned more about what they could do or must do. They refactored and refactored, and must have thrown away more code than is now in the product.

Most projects regarded as a failure usually do not manage to meet one or more criteria of scope, time, and quality, resulting in low return on investment (ROI). Failure in government ICT projects is to be expected, as the scope of ICT project investment usually fails to take into account the ongoing and significant transition to a more wired and mobile population.

She wondered if measuring success by cost, time, and target, the “triple constraints,” was the right metric. At her old job she saw projects that met the triple constraints but people did not use them or they failed to implement them because the competition changed the game. She also saw many projects that were over budget or late, but had great value. She remembered seeing a chart from The Standish Group showing the failure rate of large government projects.

Throughout the course of her project, the team had a stand-up meeting every morning and talked about what everyone had accomplished the day before and what they were going to do that day. She thought about USAF Colonel John Boyd who created the phrase “OODA loop,” which stands for the decision cycle of observe, orient, decide, and act. Boyd applied the concept to the combat operations process, often at the strategic level in military operations. She applied it to the development of their product. She wondered why governments do not use this technique?

As a result of this transition, government needs to transform from a simplistic, mechanistic provider of services to a more adaptive, result-oriented, and citizen-centric platform. Government needs to do so without losing its institutional powers. Rather than “vending” decisions and documentations, government can become more proactive by focusing on the management of situations. This requires government to involve a series of stakeholders, most of which are outside traditional public administration.

As she past the Rings Fountain she continued to read the report in her mind:

Despite the plethora of terms and definitions like e(lectronic)-government, i(nformational)- government, m(obile)-government, and T(ransactional)-government (regarding the idea of ICT-based modernization of the public sector), government investment in ICT has focused, and still does, on the old bureaucratic, heavily segmented style of government. This style serves neither the needs within the government (improving communication between departments), nor the needs of its businesses and citizens. This leads to low uptake and usage levels, registered in numerous reports both within and outside the government, leading to what was honestly described in the Dutch temporary committee on government ICT projects as “unnecessary waste of taxpayers’ money.”

She thought it was not just the Netherlands and remembered what Ilias said: “ICT transformation of the public sector has been a top priority for Greece for the last two decades. Significant amount of capital has been invested, mainly through the European co-financing schemes. The results of such investment are mixed. On one hand, basic indicators, such as access to PC/public officer, communication, and data infrastructure have been improved. On the other hand, the services delivered, with the exception tax services, have a very low uptake— in 2012 it was an average of 10%. Services were characterized mainly as introverted and fragmented, and coupled with the lack of digital data, they didn’t deliver the expected results. Added to this, regular institutional change, including legislative change, institutional authority, and power change, etc., has led to the situation where most of ICT investment became obsolete or abandoned.”

As she ran by the carousel she thought about how it does not take a big project to change the world or a government. Her app would change how government services its citizens. Citizens would demand it.

Her thoughts went back to her talk with Ilias about a project named “portal.” He said it was for the forest and water management authorities in the 13 regions of Greece. It had a small budget of 1.6 million euros to deliver a system for the 162 local agencies for forest and water management nationwide. The project itself had an innovative approach in design and implementation—it was web based and process oriented. For various political reasons the project was shelved, but it demonstrated that governments can create innovative products with low budgets. She read in her mind:

Added to this foggy environment, technology determinism, which has been hidden behind most of these terms, has created an extra puzzle of what technological choices should be made by government. In turn, this has led to technological incompatibilities, costly overlapping, duplication of infrastructure and services, and purchase of services or infrastructure without any added value, which eventually wasted valuable resources both in terms of personnel and money.

Her mind wandered back to the portal project and compared it to the Australian payroll system described by Hans. Hans said, “Australia holds the record where the government fails big to deliver IT projects, with a failed payroll system for health care. This system has cost one billion euros (1.25 billion Australian dollars) more than budgeted. IBM was the main contractor of the project to modernize the payroll system for health care in the Australian state Queensland. The project started in 2007. Shortly after its completion in 2010—18 months late—problems arose: Some employees were not paid; others got too much. Employees who received too much could not repay that amount because the system did not provide for it. The Queensland Government then decided to receive the excess sums through discounts in time.”

Given that governments around the world have invested significant amounts on ICT modernization of the public sector (estimated at 6% of GDP), it has been an expensive lesson to learn. However, the “conclusions and recommendations of the Dutch temporary committee on government ICT projects” have made for a good starting point in the process of changing the way we spend public money for ICT, from fragmented “mega” projects to “ICT investment for value-added public services.” Such an investment implies savings (in terms of time and costs), convenience, transparency in transactions, fair audit to all parts, and new ideas and services—dimensions that are more associated with value for the user rather than cost. In addition, such an investment will increase levels of accountability and transparency of public expenditure utilizing performance and impact assessment as a more appropriate framework for measurement.

As she compared the Australian payroll system against the Greek portal project there were several lessons. First, the Greek portal project was not used because it was a duplicate and the other project was preferred. While this was a mistake, such strategy often leads to high value. Second, she thought she could do 1,000 $1.2 million projects for the cost of one Australian payroll system. Third, she thought, if 10% of them gave me high value I would be way ahead of the game. She thought the value sweet spot is a project with $1 million of labor. She knew from The Standish Group research that a collection of $1 million projects would return 10 times the value of a collection of $5 million projects. Governments need to make it hard to get approval for projects over $1 million in labor and easy for IT projects under $1 million.

Later that day she and the team would create a video of the app and write up an overview and a basic business plan. They would upload it to the innovation challenge website in hopes of getting a grant to launch the product. She thought maybe this time next year they would have millions of users. She thought maybe Google or Facebook would make them a billion-dollar offer to buy the company. She pictured her phone and the shining icon through the gorilla glass and thought it was perfect. On her run back to her apartment she thought more about the report, in particular a section titled “Value for the user means value for money.”

The “conclusions and recommendations” of the Dutch committee is a clear call for the Dutch State to stop the “unnecessary waste of taxpayers’ money.” Although what was referred to in the text is true, we would like to wrap up the conclusions in a meaningful way, add new ideas, and create a resourceful framework for investment in ICT for value- added public services. Those services will provide accurate, verifiable, timed, organized, meaningful, and cost-effective information for the users, internal and external to the government. In addition, these services will be perceived as useful and valuable, not only in the matter of cost but in the wider context of wrapping, reusing, reshaping, reselling, and transmitting such information by any means of communication (G2G, G2C, G2B).

She thought about challenges in front of her, for there are millions of apps for mobile devices. She knew her app was a real breakthrough. She knew her app would change the world for the better for millions of people throughout the world. She knew her app would be hard to duplicate because she had developed special and complex algorithms. She also knew that most apps have only a few users and only a handful make the big time like Twitter. Her mind went back to the report:

In order to achieve value-added services, government must devise an ICT investment strategy for value-added public service delivery. Such strategy will set clear objectives, focus on long-term achievements and sustainability, avoid fragmentation and departmentalization of government, and protect public spending from questioning. Provided such an investment strategy is in place, economies of scale can be achieved through the minimization of costs associated with the duplication of infrastructure and services, overlapping of project results, purchase of services or infrastructure without any added value, and the release of organizational resources that have been either underutilized or blocked in unnecessary activities.

She thought how much she liked her team. She had dropped out from Harvard as math major, but two of the developers had Ph.D.s, one from MIT, the other from Stanford. The graphics person was a high school dropout who made the user experience app and their website was incredible. The app was very intuitive because of the graphics.

She thought about the day four months ago when she left her software development job to start up a mobile app company. Now four months later with only four people, they had accomplished something really amazing. She thought about her risk and knew the only way to make real progress is to take risk and with risk also comes failure.

Within such a framework we can reassess the role of ICT constituents in delivering value-added services. Procurement of ICT projects for the public sector usually takes the form of “mega” in terms of size and “integrated” in terms of design. Both of those characteristics limit the success of ICT project delivery. On one hand, “mega-projects” require the availability of vast resources, which usually don’t exist, both from the organization and the contractor. On the other hand, “integrated” solutions amplify the sense of departmentalization and fragmentation of government, wasting valuable resources due to the duplication multiplication and overlapping. However, if we consider the ICT constituents according to their functionality in the delivery of services, then we can achieve both economies of scale and a higher degree of customization with greater uptake percentages and more sustainability. For example, infrastructure’s role is to serve as a medium through which information flows unobstructed. A layered architecture is needed for sustainable software, which has layers where primary and secondary data is kept and processed. Finally, end-user applications (interfaces) are the most crucial for the take-up or rejection of ICT public services.

She thought of Jim Johnson’s talk when he said that you can’t get better at running by reading books on running; the only way you can get better at running is to run. He said the only way you get better at product delivery is to deliver product. Then she again pictured the shining icon through the gorilla glass and thought it was perfect.

With a clear strategic framework for ICT investment, as we move from infrastructure 
to end-user services, a big range of procurement possibilities are at the disposal of the government to get the value-added services required while at the same time remain competitive and abreast of technological choices. Costs, for example, can be significantly lower if infrastructure purchase is designed upon the criterion of reach, while demand concentration (bulk use) can help to raise performance standards, such as speed, capacity, etc. In building an architecture, an appropriate needs assessment can reduce cost of storage of primary data, avoiding fragmentation and data replication between government departments. On the other hand, performance can be raised if investment in data processing systems (data warehouse) can respond to data requests satisfying higher levels of perceived value by the user. Finally, end-user applications need to respond to high-value expectations of the users; either this is internal to government (G2G) or external to it (G2B, G2C). Here, flexibility in procurement processes such as framework contracts, or more advanced procedures such as challenge-based acquisitions, staged contracts, etc., can help to achieve the desired result.

She thought about Malcolm Gladwell’s Book “Outliers” in which he came up with the 10,000- hour rule. The 10,000-hour rule states that you will get really good at something if you work at it for 10,000 hours or more. Government teams need a framework to deliver product on a timely and consistent basis, and after 10,000 projects they might be good at it.

She thought about how her app had to work in many environments and interface with many other apps. She thought how lucky she was to not only have a genius on interfaces but modern API standards, advanced middleware, and open source products. She thought a standard infrastructure would go a long way toward solving many of the government issues. She picked up a hard copy of the report and read:

An appropriate framework design both at the strategic and design level can also produce significant positive economic impact. Such impact is related to public sector delivery of promised services and raises the performance. For example, shared services can allow significant synergies to appear between different departments of the government with up-to-date information support.

She did not think about a 6,000-page requirements document or 10,000 detailed specifications for her app, since they used the four whiteboard covered walls of their one-room office at the innovation center to brainstorm requirements and discuss specifications. She did think about missing features since they only created the obvious. She did not think about change management since they made changes constantly. She did not think about the features they rejected because they had no value. She did not think about countless user and stakeholder meetings since they had none. She did not think about the project management process and feeding the project management tool since they had none. She did not think about meeting

the PMO standards and reporting since there was no PMO. She did not think about making the incompetent executive sponsor happy since they had none. She only pictured the shining icon through the gorilla glass and thought it was perfect.

The usage of multiple communication channels allows the customization of the way and time that business and citizens choose to communicate with the government. Thus, government can operate and be accessible 24/7 without unnecessary extra costs. At the same time, personalized services raise the sense of security and trust in digital public services as public service provisioning becomes more effective, transparent, and responsible.

She remembered reading in The Standish Group’s “CHAOS Manifesto 2014” “...success is often in conflict with true value, and describes a better way to increase the value of your project investments. In this value-based approach to project management we recommend SAFE projects, not because they are without risk (and some will fail, but that’s OK), but because they are simple, absorbent, fast, and economical.”

She read Hans and Ilias’ closing statements of the report and thought about The Standish Group success-based versus value-based comparison table:

ICT investment for public services has returned a very low ROI, primarily because this investment has not transformed government into a more inclusive and efficient entity. ICT investments need to produce something of value for government users and their citizens. Thus, governments need to adjust their strategic approach to services based on value. This value must have impact that is measureable. ICT solutions and services must take advantage of the availability of choices for cost reduction and value maximization.

She thought that the government does not need more bureaucracy. It does not need more oversight, governance, or control. It needs a framework to deliver quality services. To this end she decided to call for a conference of some of the best minds to be held in Holland on how governments need to respond to the changing times where added value services with high impact fight against budget rationalization. Following the conference she would plan more activities and create a Haze Webpage, www.standishgroup.com/haze, with the events and activities.

If you are interested:
Jim Johnson is the key note speaker at the Heliview Software Quality Conference in Holland (Ede) on the 8th of March 2016