When digital isn’t the answer

I’ve said it before, and no doubt I’ll say it again: technology projects in the public sector are subject to a level of transparent scrutiny the likes of which would make most people in the private sector turn into gibbering wrecks. If it’s not the National Audit Office raking over the coals, it’s Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee forensically dismantling the entrails of projects failed.

And so it has been today with the PAC publishing the results of its inquiry into the Rural Payments Agency systems project that’s been running freerange through the fields of digital delivery since 2012.

The short story is that a new system was attempted to be put in place to address the needs of new regulations introduced by the EU to change the way in which payments were made under the Common Agricultural Policy.

The PAC’s conclusion is fairly hard-hitting: “Farmers and taxpayers failed by dysfunctional leadership”

You can read the details at your leisure, but for me two key, and alarming, issues are raised by the review of what was defined as one of GDS’s 25 Exemplar Projects for digital transformation (as an aside, the idea that you could define what will be your exemplar projects before you did them is either taking a very strange interpretation of the word “exemplar” and/or a very poor understanding of the concepts of agile).

The first alarm bell is that creating Digital teams runs a real risk of Nail Syndrome – whereby the owner of a hammer sees the world around them as being made up only of nails to be hit. “Digital” whatever the heck that means is not the answer to every problem and challenge, and in the RPA project it became clear that the level of not only digital literacy but also basic internet access meant that a digital-only solution was a serious issue. If you have assumed that the answer is some sort of technology system, it doesn’t matter how much you examine User Needs, you’ve missed the basic ones.

The second alarm bell, and one of which it is even more important to take heed, is that digital does not change the fundamental dynamics of organizational, business or behavioural change. You can use world class User Needs analysis to develop the best system in the world, but if you don’t address all of the rest of the political, Political, social, behavioural, managerial and many other issues that are part and parcel of delivering a complex change, you are more than likely to fail.

If you want evidence of this, look at the world of startups. Most don’t take the change part seriously – they think their product will save the world. Some do give it notice. ALMOST ALL OF THEM FAIL.

When you have a project where there is a known, defined and  (in the RPA’s case) seemingly unchangeable requirements, a fixed population of people all of whom need to adopt the change, and a complex set of stakeholders who need to be able to enable the change – well in that world you have exactly the same sorts of challenges that (particularly) enterprise IT have had forever.

The quality of the system is fairly irrelevant to the eventual outcome. What will make or break your success is collaboration, engagement, communication, strong relationships, motivations, rewards, politics. Thinking that just focusing on “User Needs” (or more processing power or bigger data or artificialer intelligence or whatever else the latest totemic fad happens to be will lead to disappointment.

These aren’t public sector issues – we would all do well to take stock from what our constitution provides in delivering insightful analysis of failed project.

2 Comments

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  1. “These aren’t public sector issues”

    Absolutely…having worked both public and private sector, I can say that both are subject to all the frailties inherent in having humans as primary agents. Regardless of sector, however, one rule stands firm: you can’t solve people problems with technology.

    You can ignore the messy part (the social system) and concentrate on that which is more straightforward (the technology), but as long as you have to marry the two, it will come back to haunt you. It should be noted that the two come together in the development, the operation, and the usage of the technological systems, so “time to haunted” will not be long.

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