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Memo to next government: Time to stop wasting millions on dud IT projects

Opinion

The Auditor-General released a damning report on the Queensland Government’s IT failures just days before the state election campaign began. It makes for depressing reading, writes Robert MacDonald

Print article

Managing growth in a post-pandemic world will  be the obvious first priority for the next state government.

But whoever wins on October 31 will  have plenty of other challenges to face – some of them enduring and seemingly unsolvable.

Among them, how to deliver big IT projects successfully.

Queensland’s Auditor-General, Brendan Worrall, recently released a report titled “Delivering successful technology projects”, which makes for depressing reading.

And not just because government agencies have clocked up more than $138 million worth of “costly technology failures” in the past two years alone, by way of cancelled projects that had run off the rails.

Or that more than a quarter of the $1.6 billion worth of 118 projects tracked by the Government’s Digital Projects Dashboard, are taking at least 50 per cent longer than planned to complete.

Or that just under a quarter of them will cost at least 50 per cent more than expected.

No, the most depressing thing is that according to the Auditor-General, the decision-makers keep failing to learn from past mistakes.

“Our research shows that senior leaders find it difficult to ensure lessons are learnt and avoid repeating mistakes of the past.

“Most projects in scope for this report have registers for lessons learnt, including lessons discussed at workshops, findings from various types of reviews, and lessons from project team members.

“Some registers include action items that project teams mark off when completed.

“However, these processes do not seem to result in learnings about the decisive actions business and project leaders need to take to avoid mistakes that have been made before.”

Which must be close to a dictionary definition for “box ticking”.

“If agencies repeat past practices, we can expect a significant proportion of Queensland’s technology projects to cost more and be delivered late or not at all,” the report warns.

Having identified the scope of the problem, the report doesn’t offer anything particularly new by way of solutions but does stress several times,  optimistically perhaps, that “learnings” from past mistakes do need to be identified and acted upon.

It also emphasises the need for practices you’d hope and assume were already being practised.

It recommends, for instance, that public sector boards and executives “ensure that current and future technology projects are set up with the right mix of skills and resources”.

Weren’t they already doing that?

It also says that contracts with external providers should “clearly describe the solution and the performance measures to achieve the outcomes”.

Again, weren’t they already doing that?

Another less than encouraging sign of an easy fix, highlighted in the report, is the challenge of actually identifying success and failure.

In May this year, the Department of Health scrapped a revamp of the information system used by its 36 laboratories cross the state, after investing $51 million and two-and-a-half years in the upgrade.

One of the reasons for abandoning the Laboratory Information System (LIS) project was the dawning realisation that the 2017 business case “overstated the urgent need to replace the existing system and overestimated the projected financial benefits”.

A review commissioned in June 2018 also “highlighted concerns with governance, communications, resource management and the supplier’s ability to deliver the project”.

It took the Health Department the best part of another two years to pull the pin on a project that the Auditor-General’s report includes on its list of “costly technology failures”.

This characterisation irked the Health Department’s Director-General, Dr John Wakefield, whose response is included in the report.

He notes that the report acknowledges that there will be times when cancellation of a project “can be appropriate”.

“Characterising the LIS Project as a “costly technology failure” does not consider the fact that project drivers change over time, and that as a result, the best option can be to stop a project, rather than complete it,” Wakefield argued.

And then there was COVID-19.

“The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the prioritisation of laboratory resourcing towards the output of more than 9,000 COVID-19 tests per day,” Wakefield wrote.

“As a result, it was determined that the optimal option for Queensland Health, considering all costs, benefits and risks, was to discontinue the project.’

A decision that, Wakefield notes, “was validated by independent experts”.

All of which highlights the challenges of steering big technology projects in the right direction.

Here was an expensive IT upgrade that was being flagged as problematic at least two years ago.

But still it proceeded, until a global pandemic arrived to drive the nail in the coffin.

Any government that can crack the secret for good IT project management, without having to rely on pandemics to force its hand, will save millions of dollars of public money.

In the meantime, we can only hope that the decision-makers take the time to read the Auditor-General’s report, which by coincidence surely, was tabled on September 30.

That date happens to be the deadline for dozens of state government agencies to file their annual reports, creating a blizzard of documents, which all but buried the highly critical Auditor-General’s findings.

They may not learn anything new but at least they’ll be reminded  just how much poorly managed technology projects are costing Queensland taxpayers.

And they could, as the Auditor-General urges, spend more time studying the “learnings” from failed projects and putting them into practice.

Given the bill we’ve paid for these learnings, that’s the very least they should do.

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