Bringing Governments into the Modern World of IT

I recently attended Microsoft’s Canadian Leadership Summit in Redmond, where I had the opportunity to meet and chat with some amazing people. I overheard one conversation between two Canadian IT industry leaders who were lamenting the difficulties in getting various departments in different levels of government to adopt new technology, or more accurately to upgrade existing technologies to newer versions.

Nobody that I know debates that governments function more efficiently with technology than they did without it. Unfortunately it is difficult to convince them that investing in newer technology – such as replacing five year old servers running Windows Server 2003 with new servers that run Windows Server 2008 R2, and implement integrated private cloud solutions based on System Center 2012 versus continuing with legacy System Center (or 3rd party) management tools – is not simply an expenditure, it is an investment in their infrastructure that will pay dividends in licensing, service, training, and maintenance cost-savings, as well as allowing them to leverage the benefits of newer, green technological advancements such as server virtualization and advanced power management capabilities of modern servers.

So what is the problem? It is as simple as it is complicated, and as easy to solve as it is impossible.

Here’s my take on the problem:

Corporations think (and invest) for the long term. So do the people who work there, because although I always discuss the death of corporate loyalty in our modern world, most employees – certainly not the strategists – plan for the future because businesses understand the need for long term vision. Unless your name is Leo or Scott, CEOs do not see their positions as transient and disposable. They have learned that vitamins are cheaper than medicine, and that maintaining a healthy IT infrastructure will save them a lot of money in costly downtime down the road.

In the free world governments are made up of transients. In a parliamentary democracy such as Canada everyone who works for the government ultimately answers to Parliament. Members of Parliament are elected for a maximum term of five years, and each has to constantly remember the direction given them by the voters, especially considering that their real full-time job (for most of them) is preparing to get re-elected.

Cabinet Members – the Justice Minister for example – are in charge of their departments. The Justice Minister is ultimately responsible for everything within his (or her) portfolio, which of course will include in this case matters pertaining to the police, criminal, and civil courts, but also the mundane issues such as the ministry’s IT department (of which with few exceptions none of them will likely know anything about). While the Cabinet Ministers have the same maximum term of five years before needing to be reelected, that is not a guarantee that they will remain in their cabinet portfolio for the duration of their term, or even in the cabinet at all. Therefore they have to make sure that their ministries run smoothly, and if possible under budget (and if not then they should only go over budget under the public radar).

Somewhere beneath the ministers we then have the career public servants.  These are not political appointments, they are professionals who keep the actual nuts and bolts of the ministry working including (but certainly not limited to) the IT.  In order for the ministry to make substantial investments in the infrastructure it would need approval from the minister.  Because the minister is ultimately responsible for his ministry’s budget, and because (as stated) most often they do not understand the implications of making infrastructure changes to IT and the short- and long-term cost benefits to same, there is a good chance that they would say no.  In order to convince them (and of course I am oversimplifying the process somewhat) the IT department would have to make a really good case for the changes. 

If we want to make a case for IT changes we cannot do it by talking cool.  Technology people are great at ‘talking cool technology.’  Unfortunately most heads of companies – whether they are CxOs of corporations or Cabinet Ministers – are not impressed by (and do not make decisions based on) ‘cool,’ they are impressed by dollars and cents, as well as sense.  They have to be convinced that a) the project is necessary, b) the project is affordable, and c) they understand that the project discussed is beneficial overall to their department.

One of the statements I have made a thousand times to audiences – whether they be classes or user groups or business groups – is that the best way to convince the CxO of a company to do anything is to use the following equation: ROI TCO ↓.  If you can demonstrate increased return on investment and a decreased total cost of ownership, then the cool factor doesn’t matter… in truth it doesn’t matter anyways.  Most IT professionals know how to speak technology; to succeed in today’s world we have to learn to speak business because outside of our field nobody really cares about the rest, save for a possible fleeting fascination with it.

This formula has very little to do with capital expenditures (capex).  Most capex costs are one-time costs that may either shock or impress the uninformed, but it is the operational expenditures (opex) that really makes the difference to most companies – the ongoing operational costs of their systems, which include tangibles such as real estate, power consumption, air conditioning, battery backups and generators, staff, and more but also have to include intangibles such as security, incidence response & manageability, end-user (employee) satisfaction, comfort, and training… as well as the environmental impact of the purchases (which may include the cost of retiring and disposing of old equipment). 

Here’s an example: An IT desktop administrator believes that his company needs to upgrade the existing client workstations that are five years old and run Windows XP and Office 2003.

The wrong approach would be to focus on the new technology.  Even most of the new features of the new technologies are of little interest to the CxOs, because the end users have been able to perform their duties satisfactorily with the old systems.

The right approach would be to create a report that cites industry studies that show the client workstation bell curve (the TCO of workstations starts to increase dramatically after three years).  Show the cost of repairs and service to the workstations over the five years, highlighting the increased cost associated with out-of-warranty repairs, as well as end-user loss of productivity due to non-functioning hardware.  They could add in the electricity costs, and show comparisons of power consumption of old CRT monitors compared to newer LCD flat screens, as well as those of older computers versus newer ones.  Additionally they should call out that a planned and phased cycling of the systems coupled with training of end-users in the newer technology would cost X, and would result in higher end-user satisfaction that leads to increased employee productivity.

Of course these opex cost benefits might be offset in the first year or two by the required up-front capex costs, but over time the cost savings would be tremendous.

In business, this just makes sense.

Unfortunately in government we run into that maximum five-year job expectancy of a minister, coupled with the fact that all of his ministry’s expenses are available for public (and especially) media scrutiny.  Short term cost for long term benefits usually does nothing for the incumbent and would actually benefit the successor’s image.  There is no political benefit to that ergo there is little chance it is going to happen.

Now let’s extrapolate this attitude across the tenure of the career IT manager, who has come to terms with the fact that the vast majority of projects that would make his life (and the life of his team) better do not get approved by the minister, and that over the course of that career he may have seen the ‘same old same old’ from several – as many as a dozen – ministers.  When the staffers’ feel that the environment is always ‘Meet the new boss… same as the old boss’ they eventually become dejected and resigned to simply doing their jobs and going home at the end of the day – and it does not take long at all for the once upbeat, excited, and passionate IT Professional to become ‘one of them…’ a cog in the wheel who knows that the nails who pop their heads out get hammered.  Now we have an environment in which not only do new projects seldom get proposed, the existing infrastructure is seldom even improved upon.

While my sampling is by no means comprehensive, I have also encountered a great many government IT workers who like to tinker with their systems, and eventually find themselves with a system that is, against all published and logical best practices, the IT equivalent of a custom motorcycle that nobody but them really knows all of the intricate details of his system.  In environments like these the there are a number of problems, not the least of which is that despite any built-in redundancies, the single-point-of-failure becomes the individual who so often have not properly documented their tweaks, so when they are approached about modernizing the systems they tend to get protective of ‘their jobs,’ and the costs of upgrading are severely increased due to the inherent complexities of a custom system coupled with the often stubborn pushback from the staff.

We end up with a government running the IT equivalent of 1982 Buicks that were purchased new in 1986 – they may have been the best cars on the market in their time, but after years of consideration and review they were four years old when they were new, and that was a long time ago.  Even with constant maintenance (which is seldom done to factory spec) they require more of it than they did new, and nobody wants to pay for that.  Also the drivers are itching for newfangled features such as air conditioning, bucket seats, and electric windows… that would simply be impossible to retrofit into the old cars.

Infrastructure projects such as private cloud based on new servers are even harder for an IT department to justify because the vast majority of the improvements and benefits are to the back-end that are never seen by anyone… they may look pretty in their racks, but the reality is an end user checking his (or her) e-mail does not care if the mail server is running Exchange Server 5.5 or Exchange 2010, nor if that server is physical or virtualized.  The mail comes in and goes out, that is enough for them.  The proposal, therefore, must be made strictly based on numbers, and although most IT people are pretty good at math most of them do not have a background in (nor a strong understanding of) accounting principles or how to prepare a business proposal.

So with all of this working against us as an industry, how do we begin to try to solve it?  Where do we start?

Attitudes.  It is as important for us to change attitudes, from the top down and from the ground up.  It is as important to show the politicians the value of a modern IT infrastructure within their organization as it is to teach the IT professionals the skills to deliver compelling proposals in business-speak.  All levels have to understand the benefits – the positive, such as long-term cost benefits, green solutions, and heightened security capabilities, as well as the potential negative impact and costs of maintaining older systems that are out of warranty, harder to secure, and often more costly to program.

Drive. It is incumbent upon us to reengage with the IT Pros and remind them of the passion that drew them into their field in the first place, reignite the fires they once had.  Very little has ever been accomplished by those lacking passion.

Education. Often enough the people who want to drive new projects lack the full understanding of the actual benefits of the projects that could actually tip the balance from no to yes.  Explaining that end users will be happier with Windows 7 and that it will be easier to manage and support may be part of their argument, but being able to show the cost benefit prediction model might tip the balance.

These are three very simple answers to a not-so-simple problem.  There are so many other factors to consider, not the least of which are privacy requirements in the government and the fear of scandal (remember the eHealth boondoggle).  Again, the nail who sticks his head up…

Most people (the voters) also don’t understand the benefits of modern IT, and would rather see ministries spend their money only when absolutely necessary, and then only on the least expensive solution.  This attitude when it comes to IT is a dangerous one, but the average voter does not understand anything about IT, and unlike the minister is limited to possibly hearing a one minute news broadcast, or three column inches of reporting of facts, followed by hours of talk show hosts who usually don’t understand IT any better than the listeners, but who understand that taxpayer dollars are being spent on something that nobody is going to see and few are going to use.  That is a good way to ensure that the minister in question turns the plan down and looks for less expensive alternatives… that usually cost much more in the long run.

There are so many factors on the table that make it a daunting task for the leaders of the IT industry in Canada – people who really know and understand the benefits of implementing modern technology – to make inroads in government agencies, ministries, and departments.  I don’t have the whole solution, but I hope that in this article I have sufficiently outlined the major pain points so that others can tackle the problem and start fixing it.

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2 thoughts on “Bringing Governments into the Modern World of IT

    • That may be true, but there are still ten provincial governments, as well as a plethora of crown corporations. Although I used the feds as an example they are certainly not alone.

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