Breaking with old habits to get your IT going
The Dutch television show EenVandaag (OneToday) recently devoted attention to a recurring topic: expensive and inefficient IT projects at (executive) government agencies. This time, the reason to focus on the subject wasn’t a failed implementation or overly expensive, cash-guzzling purchase of an IT system but a cry for help from three executive government agencies. The SVB (social security bank), the tax and customs administration, and the police are asking politicians for peace of mind. Overdue maintenance on government IT systems has increased to such an extent that making far-reaching legislative changes is now irresponsible.
Child, please stop growing
As far as I’m concerned, asking politicians to solve your IT problems is the equivalent of asking your child to stop growing. It is unrealistic, and it’s a move that is perhaps driven by despair. Administrators, IT managers and civil servants dreadfully witness the two-sided problem of the growing mountain of legacy products and rising IT costs approaching their organization. And it’s very understandable that they want to push the pause button. The same applies to many parents when they see their offspring ride their bikes independently to attend secondary school for the first time. But reality tells us that a pause button doesn’t exist. In fact, it shouldn’t be necessary at all, simply because today’s tech-first environment offers a clear-cut path that leads you toward an efficient and structured IT landscape.
What is the problem?
It is obvious that an important part of the solution depends on how the Dutch government is organized. We have seen the answer to this question before. That’s why I will leave it alone for now. Nor should we think that we are dealing with an IT problem. Believe it or not, in 2021, technology gives you easy access to a vast, almost unlimited reservoir of possibilities.
Changing the way we collaborate
So what exactly are we dealing with? First, we run into a system malfunction that is all about the way in which we organize projects and how we work with each other. Think of the annually recurring budget cycle and the (understandable) urge to make tenders as large as possible. Instinctively, this saves a lot of time. But simultaneously, the complexity increases drastically, while maneuverability is directly under pressure. These examples form an important obstacle to finding possible and more effective solutions. Cooperation and a different way of working or organizing are essential to ensure that the need for the above-mentioned request from the SVB, tax authorities, and the police becomes increasingly obsolete. The variety of organizations that contributed to the EenVandaag item only underlines that IT challenges cannot be limited to one domain, region, or government organization.
Knowledge is power
This statement should appeal to many directors and administrators. However, in the real world, I often see just the opposite. Unfortunately, the lack of IT knowledge across the board regularly causes people to talk to each other without having the same conversation. A lot of essentials get lost in translation. Many of these projects run for such a long time that employees, managers or decision-makers who played an important role, in the beginning, have often moved on to another position. Additionally, the composition of the team often influences the dynamics of the project, too. The projects are therefore too long-winded and large in scope. The consequence? The human dimension gets overlooked. In addition, the Dutch government, together with the implementing agencies, forms a fragmented landscape. This means that the governmental IT systems are also fragmented, running the risk that the overarching bird’s-eye view will disappear completely. Attracting or developing expertise is the best way to tackle these problems.
The aforementioned issues are important, but above all, the question that remains is: when will the human dimension return to these kinds of projects? Where is the collective sense of responsibility on the part of both the government and its suppliers? There is no doubt that a pragmatic and rigorous change of direction is needed to get governmental IT operations back in order. But that is really only possible if all the executive authorities and politicians let go of their tunnel vision, actively work on a holistic approach, and are prepared to break with old habits. Just asking for stability and peace of mind, however understandable, is not going to help. The technical possibilities are no longer a limitation; the challenge now lies in how we organize IT processes. After all, if you keep on doing what you did in the past, you will always get the same result. But when circumstances change, the outcome changes accordingly.
The original Dutch article can be read on iBestuur.nl