When IT Projects Fail, Technology Often Isn’t to Blame

From the moment an IT project is launched, there’s political pressure from agencies to back off business changes that would deliver results.
August 2013

If you tend to think IT projects overpromise and under-deliver, you’re not alone. At a June conference held by the Center for Digital Government -- the research arm of our sister publication, Government Technology -- an informal poll of 20 officials from 17 states found that agency managers are much less confident than IT leaders in the outcome of technology projects.

But is that fair to IT departments?

“I do think there’s a confidence gap,” says Randy Cole, president of the Ohio Controlling Board, a powerful seven-member organization that oversees selected IT projects for the state legislature. He says the issue isn’t IT but fear. Projects often fail, he says, because agencies don’t follow through on difficult business changes that need to accompany technology deployments.

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Here’s the problem: From the moment an IT project is launched, there’s pressure to back off changes that would deliver results. New technology can help an agency deliver a service with fewer employees, for instance, but getting real savings from those improvements demands staff layoffs or reassignments. That’s a tough move for any entity.

Another wrenching change for an agency is that new software may require employees to alter work routines that have been in place for decades. All too often, agencies opt instead to rewrite new software to make it work more like the old stuff they’re replacing. Those modifications dilute the new system’s benefits and drive up project costs.

Unfortunately, IT departments are in a poor position to hold the line on these issues. They’re usually deploying technology for a “customer” agency, and like any “retailer” they want a happy client. They’re also racing against the clock. “Once a project gets started, IT is driven by time and money,” Cole says. So it’s usually easier and faster to give in to customer demands than fight them.

These risks are at the top of officials’ minds in Ohio, where the state government is launching a massive technology initiative that will either upgrade, standardize or eliminate thousands of computer servers and software systems. To ensure the state gets the most bang for its buck, the Ohio Office of Budget and Management created a Value Management Office to help set fair expectations for technology projects and independently track the progress of IT work and related business changes.

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The office will work with agency executives, budget analysts, hiring officials, procurement officers and IT leaders to reach a consensus upfront on what needs to be done and who is responsible for doing what. The office then reports back to those stakeholders, who are now responsible for policing their own projects, during the life of the project. “In the end, our budget, hiring and procurement people need to understand what we’re doing and make sure that the actions taken on projects match the criteria we’ve established,” Cole says. “The office could have been the cop, but we see it more as a referee.”

Fittingly, the office will also ensure that as projects are completed executive leaders and others recognize where the payoff from IT investments occurs. Cole says cost savings or cost avoidance from new technologies can be hard to grasp because they’re often buried in complex agency budgets. Better visibility and understanding of these benefits will help the IT department get credit when credit is due.

Ohio is in the early stages of its technology initiative, so it remains to be seen whether the Value Management Office can referee the sometimes messy process of large-scale IT implementation. But if it works, the move could go a long way toward closing IT’s credibility gap.

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