Local Governments Need Long-Term IT Planning

Pablo Valerio, International Business & IT Consultant | 9/16/2011 | 11 comments

Pablo Valerio
Voltaire said: “The better is the enemy of the good.” This has been been commonly paraphrased as “Perfection is the enemy of good enough.” In any case, especially in IT projects, it can be interpreted as “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”

One of the problems of having elections every four years, or every two, is the temporary nature of government administrations. From national governments to municipal governments big and small, all kinds of decisions are made by looking only at the short-term issues, not the long-term. Government IT projects are especially vulnerable, since long-term planning and development are necessary to ensure the viability of new systems and the proper allocation of resources. Many such projects have failed -- costing taxpayers millions -- because of administration changes and short-sightedness.

Recently I read an excellent book -- A City So Grand by Stephen Puleo -- about the history of Boston in the second half of the 19th century. He details the changes that were made over 50 years that shaped Boston as the metropolis that it is today. At that time it was possible, and imperative, to focus on long-term planning to create a better city for the current citizens and for future generations. The 35-year engineering and construction of the Back Bay and the first American subway are examples of the collaboration and long-term planning accomplished by the city’s administrations through that period.

Whether we are talking about installing a citywide WiFi system for the public or developing a new online government administration system, it is essential for IT projects to be planned for the long term and be sustained by future administrations.

Cities and small towns alike are struggling with their budgets to keep public services functioning; they can’t afford the overspending caused by frequent changes to IT infrastructure. It is necessary to optimize resources and make purchase and service decisions based on long-term, cost-effective solutions. Also it is necessary to establish tight control mechanisms to ensure that projects and equipment are allocated adequately, without being disrupted by politics.

It is very important to keep the teams in place. Changing IT managers because of administration renewal will only create additional hardship on software engineers, support personnel, programmers, and the entire administration. Policies should be clear, stable, and functional. As Bruce F. Webster wrote in "The Real Software Crisis," in the January 1996 issue of BYTE magazine: "Success in software development depends most upon the quality of the people involved... [It] shows individual and team productivity to be the leading predictor in estimating software costs..."

Management should also try to allocate the right resources before the project starts -- or at least early in the development process. This will save on budgeting efforts and help set schedules. When the budget and schedule are correctly in place, meeting the town’s requirements is possible. This relieves pressure on the team and gives them a better chance at success.

Also it is important to focus on functionality and not on ambitious costly projects. Until the economy turns around and we can see stable growth, towns can’t afford overspending on IT projects.

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Broadway   Local Governments Need Long-Term IT Planning   9/20/2011 2:32:37 PM
Re: IT
Right. Agendas change as administrations come and go, even as appointees come and go.

Another obvious factor is corruption and the equally negative aspects of anti-corruption rules such as mandating that officials take the lowest bid from outside contractors.

You want a case study in how local governments easily botch up long-term IT planning? Check out what happened to Philadelphia's plan to install free wireless within city limits. Egregious failure and waste of money. 
impactnow   Local Governments Need Long-Term IT Planning   9/20/2011 11:23:48 AM

A very salient point however it is a hard mountain to climb with so much red tape and changing agendas that have ripple effects. These environmental aspects coupled with the rapidly changing pace of technology make the perfect storm for IT inefficiency.

SaneIT   Local Governments Need Long-Term IT Planning   9/20/2011 8:58:49 AM
Re: Local Government projects
@ MarshaSt, that was kind of my point I never imagined that things could be so inefficient.  I imagine that at the highest levels that there are more drastic changes but I can't imagine that something like a phone system install or a database project would be stopped dead because of an election on a local level.  I'm sure there are pet projects that don't sit well but the basic infrastructure has to stay, right?
MarshaSt   Local Governments Need Long-Term IT Planning   9/19/2011 10:32:51 PM
Re: Local Government projects
One would think that with US politics having existing for all these hundreds of years (far longer than IT) that plans would be put in place at the genesis of projects, safeguarding long-term, pre-existing projects (not just IT) during transitions from one administration to the next.

Of course, it seems there are indeed always politics at play.  Remember when some of the Clinton staff removed all the "W"'s from the keyboards during the transition to GW's administration?  Okay, it was funny, but it's hard to imagine that anyone in that administration would want to keep any from the previous given the mischievous tricks (albeit in good fun)? Of course, perhaps the pink slips had already been handed out, precipitating the practical jokes.

It makes sense to have the safeguards in place for the purpose of smaller budgets. Think of the cost involved in investing money and manpower in projects only to abandon them to start something new that may only be abandoned during the next, inevitable go-round.  It's amazing anything gets done!  Of course, therein lies one of the major problems of politics, eh?
Pablo Valerio   Local Governments Need Long-Term IT Planning   9/19/2011 11:28:03 AM
Re: How do we overcome this?
@Sara, I wish I had the answer, I would be rich!

Sometimes administrations embark in very aggressive, ambitious projects without thinking about the long term effect of them.

Another issue is State and National Government funding. Some towns started innovative projects just to get the additional money from the regional and national funds, but lack the long term vision to keep the systems running after the initial grants run out.

I think we need a little of common sense and, despite the desire to do something new and innovative, concentrate on the basic needs on a long-term basis. Investing in IT is always a good idea, but not in new projects without clear vision of the future, not only to complete the initial development but also how to maintain and keep the systems functional.


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Sara Peters   Local Governments Need Long-Term IT Planning   9/19/2011 10:24:41 AM
How do we overcome this?
What you say makes perfect sense to me, Pablo. It seems like the people who make the decisions to begin or end projects are the ones who are in a position to fix this problem... but in government agencies those decisions aren't necessarily left to the IT leaders, they're largely made by the elected officials. So how do the people who lead IT work around the politics, work around the transitory nature of government leadership, and make their long-term projects come to fruition?
nimanthad   Local Governments Need Long-Term IT Planning   9/19/2011 5:54:49 AM
Re: Local Government projects
Well if this can be done it would be great but the budget will be an issue when this question is raised in Local Governments. They always think about the budget very strictly.
white.space   Local Governments Need Long-Term IT Planning   9/18/2011 2:21:18 PM
Like governments, like IT
Governments need a long-term strategic roadmap in terms of how they plan to go about consuming IT, and cherry pick projects. Unfortunately, since this is dependent to a large extent on what the Government (with a capital 'G') is actually doing, it varies from administration to administration, and IT projects vary with it. Priorities get realigned, and IT gets reassigned.

Between the strategic intent, and the strategic architecture, lies the shadow. Okay, so I am misquoting Eliot here, but you get the point.

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David Wagner   Local Governments Need Long-Term IT Planning   9/16/2011 2:17:04 PM
Re: Local Government projects
I don't know about every local level, but I know that saly even IT positions vulnerable to politics. I had a friend who worked in IT in the White House. She was a democrat hired during the Clinton administration. However, her role was clearly not political. She was just part of the staff maintaining the equipment in the West Wing. However, at the end of the Clinton administration she was politely asked to leave so they could find someone friendlier to the administration.

I'm sure if she stood her ground they couldn't have legally fired her (and I bet even the request was lawsuit worthy) but since she was highly employable and the economy was good, she just left.

I'm sure that sort of thing gets replicated in local and state IT shops all across the country. Not every time and every election, but more than we would like. I suspect that hurts long term planning even more than budget fluctations.
Pablo Valerio   Local Governments Need Long-Term IT Planning   9/16/2011 1:45:47 PM
Re: Local Government projects
@SaneIT I’m not trying to say that all IT projects are susceptible to administration changes but –as new policies come in place with new administrations—many projects are short lived because the lack of commitment by different factions.

Look at the healthcare reform at national level. The Federal Government is spending billions to implement the systems for people to get their insurance, or provide public healthcare services. In case of an administration change those projects will be wasted. I know this an extreme example but at local level many initiatives go this way.

Many projects are decided to meet deadlines before elections; this is a fact in most democratic countries around the world. And if the deadline is not met sometimes the entire project is abandoned because there is no political advantage.

Fortunately there are many cities and towns were the interest of the community is put first before political differences. In those cases the different factions agree to optimize resources.
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