Sweating the details at Shared Services: What it will take to reset it

Can Shared Services Canada be saved?

The government’s five-year-old central computer services agency has been unable to deliver any of its main projects on time – not telecom, email or data centres.

Not only have promised savings failed to materialize, the Liberal government has had to fork over more than $400 million to keep the old technologies running longer than planned. Further claims on the national treasury may be necessary.

Shared Services has committed to unveiling a revised master plan by Dec. 1. In it, the agency will explain how it intends to repair broken projects and then transfer more than 14,000 software applications – from budget programs to human resources – to a new electronic backbone. The original deadline for this massive, multi-tiered transformation was 2020. This will almost certainly be extended.

Nevertheless, Michael Werner, the clerk of the Privy Council Office, has made it clear that Shared Services is here to stay – that the days of individual departments managing their own information technology are over. So, at the very least, the Liberal government intends to try to salvage the troubled agency.

There is no shortage of advice. Shared Services has been consulting widely with Canadians and industry experts. The Auditor General and a House of Commons committee have offered independent assessments. A second Commons committee is preparing one.

Treasury Board – which sets guidelines for the government’s use of information technology – recently hired Gartner Group, an international consultant, to recommend how Shared Services should get its projects back on track. Its report is due by March 31.

No doubt, many of these ideas will be sound. That’s never been the problem with Shared Services. The notion of consolidating email systems, telecommunications networks and data centres to achieve economies of scale makes perfect sense.

The problem always has been sweating the details – how to install new IT systems while smoothly decommissioning the old stuff.

Hands-on experience and expertise is vital, but so is relative freedom to act in the face of changing circumstances – even if this means making mistakes. And this is where government has a problem.

It’s not just that its top mandarins lack knowledge and interest in IT. It’s that the entire procurement system and its political overseers suffocate rather than expedite the rollout of large IT projects.

This is messy stuff – software underpinning data centres and telecommunications networks evolves constantly. Upgrading applications across dozens of federal departments inevitably produces conflicts. Programmers and their managers must be free to resolve them – and to drop approaches that aren’t working. The job demands constant testing and feedback at a very micro level.

Shared Services’ first chief operating officer, Grant Westcott, had nearly four decades of experience in government and the private sector – where he was instrumental in consolidating IT systems at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. But at Shared Services, nearly every move he made was constrained.

At CIBC, Westcott would have been given a budget, a mandate and left alone to get on with it. Had his projects been late and run over budget, it’s unlikely he would have lasted there nearly a decade. In the event, Westcott and his team streamlined the bank’s telecommunications systems and collapsed 22 data centres into just two, trimming CIBC operating costs significantly.

However, the federal government doesn’t allow for this sort of flexibility. Procurement documents contain page after page of technical requirements for programmers and IT consultants. The projects are over-engineered, in other words – in a usually forlorn effort to mitigate most conceivable risks.

Budgets and timelines are spelled out in meticulous detail – even though relatively little is known during the earliest stages about how projects will actually progress. And, of course, there is often extensive cabinet oversight of projects that are costly, late or affect government websites. Which is to say, most of them.

According to experts hired to do these projects, what are needed are wins – IT projects that succeed. And the best way to make these happen is to start with small steps – manageable projects or parts of projects that work. The more of these that Shared Services can string together, the more other federal departments will be willing to let it handle.

This would also make things much easier for Shared Services president Ron Parker – instead of continually revising deadlines for his agency’s main projects, he would be able to point to services actually being performed. Far more satisfying – assuming his people can be freed to get things done.

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