Enthusiasm is not always a good thing………..more on Novopay

Wednesday March 20th, 2013

As the Novopay debacle drags relentlessly on, I wonder if anyone in government information technology (IT) circles is taking the lead of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and making Robin Gauld’s book Dangerous Enthusiasms compulsory staff reading.

In his first lecture as professor of health policy at the University of Otago, Prof Gauld explained that the book, co-authored by Associate Prof Shaun Goldfinch and first published in 2006, sought answers to why there is such a high failure rate of public sector IT projects.

It had achieved something ‘’ of a cult status in the IT industry’’,he said.

The Novopay saga had given the book renewed local relevance.
Based on the case studies in the book – including Waikato and Wellington hospitals which between them wasted at least $43 million, and the Police Incis system at over $100million – the authors developed a list of instructions for how to create a disaster called ‘’ eight habits for highly effective IT fiascoes’’.

They are:

1. Have an ambitious project scope – the more ambitious the better
2. Change technical specifications during the project
3. Develop a long and complex contract and assume this will solve problems that will arise (and they will)
4. Rely on advice and skills of salespeople and contract consultants, and don’t develop in-house IT expertise. Ensure many different consultants are involved so project knowledge is fragmented
5. Ensure project has long development time-frame, so technology becomes obsolete and increasing likelihood of agency organisational changes
6. Believe everything you are told about progress with the project; assume bugs will be ironed out once project is live
7. Look for key indicators of forthcoming failure. Do not terminate the project; instead, rely on reorganised management processes, tighter monitoring regimes, and promised technology/IT expert fixes
8. Continue throwing money at the project.

Prof Gauld says from what we know now, Novopay appears to be an all-time classic failure, with all eight habits practiced.

“ There was a reliance on contracts, an extended developmental timeframe, extremely ambitious project scope, use of many external consultants to provide advice and ensure that knowledge about the project was fragmented, an assumption that Talent2 – Novopay’s developer – could reliably deliver, and a failure to abandon the project at several critical points in its history when it looked as though all was not well.’’

Prof Gauld also referred to the ‘’four dangerous enthusiasms’’.
These are:
Idolisation – Public servants idolise IT and see it as leading to great benefits.
Technophilia – More and better technology prevents or fixes problems
Managerial faddism –New management or structures bring benefits and prevent or fix problems
Lomanism – Feigned or genuine belief of IT suppliers and sales staff in their company’s products.

Prof Gauld says these were evident in each of the cases explored in the book and “ again, from what we can see, also in the case of Novopay. What is surprising about Novopay is the lack of learning from prior IT disasters in the NZ public sector, or across government – as we now know that NZ Post also had problems with Novopay’’.

‘’It seems these enthusiasms continue to beleaguer public sector IT projects with sales people and companies aiming to get their foot in the door, oversell products and tidy up problems later to the expense of the taxpayer.’’

Lomanism gets its name from the infamous Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s play "Death of a Salesman''.

‘’ Lomanism mixes rather cruelly with what we called managerial faddism, civil servant idolisation, and technophilia to create the perfect storm that leads to failure. ‘’

Prof Gauld said the book had come to the fore again recently in the United States as huge Federal Government investments in health IT had raised concerns about possibility of failures.

My hope is that all those involved with funding or developing health IT projects in New Zealand are paying close attention to all the points made by the authors .
- Elspeth McLean

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