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Article Article December 9th, 2015

Getting government IT up to speed

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Government IT leaders need to have a strategy for significant changes

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A clear view of its current capabilities is a prerequisite

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It takes typically up to 24 months to lift a single capability area by one maturity level

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Don't enter government service for the quiet life. Deadlines emerge, challenges abound - some are anticipated, many more are not - and a vast array of evolving interests and demands have to be balanced on a daily basis, all under a fierce media spotlight that never wavers. No wonder, then, that simply managing the machine so often takes precedence.

But times move on, and organisations must too. Today's generation of policymakers can call on a range of new techniques such as behavioural insights to effect change, as well as new delivery mechanisms like government labs. These developments are just two examples of how government is changing, but to really maximise their public impact, organisations must aim higher and seek to transform. To do so they can lean on a panoply of digital technology programmes - but it's easier said than done.

For starters, in any technology-enabled transformation, government IT leaders need to deploy two different strategies. One is the more obvious: have a strategy for significant changes - like digitising operations - and develop the necessary tactics to deliver the technology that supports the transformation. More often overlooked is the second, which is about ensuring that the IT organisation itself has the right functional capabilities to drive and sustain the transformation.

Tick-tock: transform

It's important to see this in context. When it comes to government operations, government IT systems are not as compelling as new investments in, say, schools or hospitals but they are nonetheless crucial. In these financially constrained times, it is even more important to ensure bang for the buck - and an unfit IT organisation can put hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars at risk.

When technology-enabled transformations fail, they fail hard. Even an average project will deliver only 25% of the predicted benefit, spend 80% more than planned, and take nearly as twice as long to complete. In most cases, transformations fail because the IT organisation is not fit to complete the multi-year marathon that is required. By contrast, fit IT organisations can deliver transformation programmes more consistently and predictably. They also tend to make better trade-offs and resource-allocation decisions and work more effectively and efficiently, both internally and with third parties.

So, this prompts the question: how can government organisations ensure that their IT function is fit to support the transformation? The answer, in short, lies in IT leaders designing an explicit plan to assess and develop the necessary capabilities.

A clear view of its current capabilities is a prerequisite for any organisation. Only then will shortfalls come to light, and this is particularly important because the required capabilities vary according to the type of transformation. For example, in a core-system modernisation, those capabilities that are associated with large-programme delivery will be the most critical; in a digital innovation transformation, the priority will be to strengthen the alignment between IT and business strategy and operations.

The relevance of different capabilities also changes over time. In the early stages of a transformation, when funding is the priority, the cost management group is likely to be prominent, while portfolio, programme and project delivery will come to the fore once savings have been reinvested in IT.

Framework for fitness

When it comes to developing and strengthening its capabilities, an IT organisation can use the IT Capability Maturity Framework (IT-CMF) for guidance. Developed by the Innovation Value Institute, the IT-CMF provides a structured and comprehensive set of 32 capabilities, which are each linked to the ways in which IT drives value.

For example, one organisation faced serious issues about the governance of its large IT-enabled transformation programmes, which were worth more than $500 million. About a dozen large IT initiatives were under way, and management was fielding regular requests from each one for more funds. Using the IT-CMF, it worked out that it needed to invest in three things: disciplines to manage and (re-)prioritise the portfolio in light of the real binding constraints (which turned out to be people, not dollars); being more systematic and hard-nosed in benefits realisation and tracking; and having a more sophisticated way of managing their vendors and handling the demand for new IT work within the organisation.

It's not easy, though. It takes typically 18 to 24 months of focused, well-resourced and disciplined effort to lift a single capability area by one maturity level. This effort will include embedding accountabilities, processes, tools, and decision-making.

When stepping back and looking at the process from a wider perspective, it is also clear that timing counts. Those organisations that systematically strengthen their most critical IT capabilities early in a transformation are consistently better at delivering on the promised value. Indeed, a clear and early focus on the most critical capabilities and the right investments in resources, effort and management attention are what separates success from failure.

So, while a transformation can certainly appear to be an intimidating prospect, it's important to use reliable and tested tools, like the IT-CMF, to stay focused. If an organisation does so, the light at the end of the transformational tunnel should grow brighter every day.

Further reading: Getting Fit for Transformation on BCG Perspectives


  • The Transformer. BCG's Vikram Bhalla has spent the last 20 years working on transformation projects large and small. Here, he shares some of the key ingredients of a successful change programme
  • Wired up and fired up. Few cities have embraced the digital revolution as successfully as Kansas City. Its mayor, Sly James, tells us how technology is transforming public services and opening up new opportunities for his community today - and tomorrow
  • Core workouts. Governments are increasingly seeking to transform their core systems. Andrew Arcuri explains how they can move from achieving good results, to truly great
  • Power to the people. Few countries have embraced the digital era as successfully as New Zealand. BCG's Miguel Carrasco talks to one of the New Zealand government's key digital transformation leaders, Richard Foy, about how they've done it.
  • Computer says yes. Governments are increasingly reliant on digital technology to deliver public services - and Australia's myGov service is a potential game-changer, says Gary Sterrenberg
  • Online, on track? Miguel Carrasco looks at how policymakers can improve the delivery of digital services
  • Making numbers count. The application of big data can support smart decision-making in government, says Doug Beal
  • Digital dawn. It may not be obvious, but US policymakers have had an important role to play in the creation of today's digital era. But sometimes it involves stepping back rather than stepping up, suggests David Dean

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