Let me preface this by saying that “wow, you guys over there are just uniquely kicking ass” is an evaluation that “you guys” almost always dispute.

I know this from personal experience, since most of the world seems to think that Canada is uniquely kicking ass in the field of open source geospatial, a myth founded on a few hundred thousand dollars in Federal funding that a couple of companies bent themselves into pretzels to obtain and use for open source development work. Often, the exterior impression is simplistic, or only takes in one data point. (If the plural of “anecdote” is not data, neither is the singular.)

All that before I go on and say “the UK seems to be really ahead of the curve on a lot of things that are important in government and IT”. In talking about them explicitly, at the least, and perhaps in doing them too.

First, get this: Martha Lane Fox is the “UK Digital Champion”, appointed by the government, and the report is just one of the things she has produced. Imagine, a “digital champion”!

Second, check out the core recommendation: rip responsibility for web and digital interaction with citizens out of line ministries, into a dedicated digital office.

Well, they did it, or seem to have done, and the result is It’s worth checking out the site, if only for the pictures of youthful nerd-hood, the independent job postings, the attempt to promote a more innovative and active digital culture than one typically finds within government.

The intent is clearly to create a new centre of mass of government IT, with a more innovative and web-oriented culture, and from there push out into the line ministries over time, rather than trying to alter the whole IT culture in one go. In 20 years, will the IT leadership of the UK be made up of alumni?

Update: Check out their design principles.


Apropos of nothing, here’s every RFP document issued for the ICM project in BC (and there were 10 different RPF/ITQ/RFI/NOI postings over the years) rendered as a word cloud. Notice the prominence of “child” and “family”. When you get down to brass tacks, enterprise IT doesn’t much care about what you do, but it very intensely cares about how you do it.

Once in a Lifetime: IT in Question Period

Today in question period, the opposition NDP in British Columbia devoted five of their six questions to information technology issues! It’s pretty rare that the snooze-fest that is IT rises to the level of political notice, so I don’t expect a repeat display again in my lifetime.

Some of the questions:

A. Dix: My question is to the Minister of Citizens’ Services. An independent report on integrated case management across ministry computer systems, meant to improve services to vulnerable British Columbians, states that the system may never be fixed. A system that cost over $200 million may have to be thrown out because of mismanagement. The report says that in the bidding phases for this technology, the ministries in question were in chaos, going through so-called transformation with a revolving door of ministers. The children’s representative has said: “This report speaks to incompetent stewardship.” With such damning comments, and a lack of faith that the system can be fixed, can the minister explain what went wrong and when the government will take responsibility for this mess?

R. Austin: It’s not just in the child welfare system that this mismanagement has occurred but also in education. We know that this government spent almost $100 million on their electronic data system. What we don’t know is how much was also spent by school boards on training, implementation and licensing costs. Communities and taxpayers should not have to pay the costs of Liberal mismanagement on these colossal computer projects. Can the Minister of Education tell this House how much in total was spent by districts and the government on this failed computer program?

The systems in question, ICM and BCeSIS, cost the government respectively about $200M and $100M. That is, far beyond the outer edge of where we can intellectually grasp the amount of money involved, or where the effort goes.

Here’s one way of understanding what a $200M project budget means, look at what the budget means in terms of people.

Assume a $200K fully loaded staff cost (salary, overhead, benefits, everything). That’s a big number, but let’s assume experienced professionals being paid commensurately. That means $200M equates to 1000 person-years of effort. Or, over a 5-year project span, a 200 person staff. What could you deliver, in 5 years, with 200 highly trained professionals?

Here’s another way of looking at what $200M spent on IT means. Over the four year period from 2003 to 2007, Facebook grew from Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm project to a company with 50 million active users. In that time, during which Facebook had no revenue, investors put just under $40M into the company. So it cost $40M to build the 2007-era Facebook.

So, $200M to build a failed case management system that (poorly) serves a working population of a few thousand civil servants, against $40M to build an intricate social network that serves a population of 50 million.

There’s no way to get around it: enterprise IT is hopelessly broken, and much of the money we spend on systems development is wasted. We need a new way of doing business.

Modular Systems Development

Turns out not only am I not insane, I’m not on the bleeding edge or even remotely innovative!

When I say that enterprise IT projects should be broken into small parts, done by independent small teams, and manage risk by managing size, I’m actually parroting the United States Office of Management and Budget, the boringest, stodgiest organization on the planet!

Modular system development mitigates risk, says Daniel Werfel, federal controller for the OMB.

Under modular development, discrete project deliverables get pushed out more often, meaning that reviews and evaluations happen sooner, allowing for the possibility for quick corrective actions that can mitigate financial exposure.


Projects of a more traditional variety–in which about 80 percent of the budget goes to customizing a commercial solution–cannot quickly adapt to changing laws or technology and often have costs rise by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Check out this awesome graphic from the guidance document:

Read the full guidance document if you dare: they didn’t get to be the boringest, stodgiest organization on the planet by bringing their “B” game.

COTS uber alles?

I continue to follow the ongoing $180M-and-counting IT debacle of “integrated case management” in British Columbia with interest, perhaps because it’s a local catastrophe and not some far-flung disaster.

The latest tidbit is an independent consultant’s review of ICM from the perspective of the Ministry of Children and Families (MCF). I hadn’t previously appreciated the extent to which the hydra-headed nature of ICM as a project of both MCF and the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) was contributing to disfunction.

In politic terms, the consultants point out that MCF was the weaker partner in the partnership, and therefore got steamrolled during the design phase. MSD had a stronger team, was better prepared, and got what they wanted. MCF was the red-headed step-child.

Another issue the consultants noted was the way the “COTS” requirement and “no customization” made a bad situation worse. No matter what the clients wanted, there was a arbitrary external rule always in play:

The ICM solution [should] not be based on a customized system, but as much as possible rely on an “out of the box” product (with necessary configuration to meet the respective needs of MCFD and MSD).

If you knew the magic incantations, you could sometimes get an exemption, but the MCF team didn’t know how to play the game:

It became clear in our interview process that while the project principles did support exceptions to the “no customization”’ rule where there was a solid business rationale, current MCFD leadership did not recognize they could make this appeal, and so remained fully constrained by the design and implementation of a single instance untailored to MCFD needs.

And so the final product rolled out was a design disaster for child protection:

The decision to implement a single instance of the Siebel product required that all users (regardless of ministry or program) share a common set of forms and data attributes, even though they touch on completely different topics and clients, and speak very different practice “languages”. This has also led to many forms being developed with redundant fields and or labels that are meaningless to the majority of users.

In fact, the “phase 2” rollout was such a disaster that the whole COTS “no customization” rule seems be to up for review! Tucked into the consultant report is this little gem of a status update:

The ICM/Deloitte Project Team has also been working on the design and development of an external service provider portal which will utilize a custom user interface (i.e. leveraging the information within Siebel but presented through a completely separate web application). While the service provider portal does not have any direct relationship to MCFD’s Child Protection Services, it does demonstrate that the project team can design and develop a solution that builds on the Siebel platform with a customized user interface and significantly improved usability. This approach will be of value as we consider the revised child protection solution and we see it as a very positive step.

Plan B is now officially under way! The generic Siebel interfaces are being ditched in favour of (gasp!) custom designed user interfaces fit to purpose. Will the Siebel interfaces all be eventually phased out? That’s my prediction.

The only question left is how long MSD and MFC will have to pay Siebel licensing for a system that has been delivered over-budget and with insufficient functionality largely to cater to the predictable limitations of the Siebel software and the “no customization” COTS philosophy. A long, long time, I fear.