The need for KPIs versus FOIs

by Richard Fahey on 23/07/2009

Earlier today, the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) published the “traffic light” statuses and gateway reviews of 23 high-risk IT-related projects. This information was requested by Computer Weekly three years ago, but has only now been made public.

The disclosures were made as a result of Computer Weekly’s application under the FOI Act in April 2006 for:

The results of all Gateway reviews on high-risk IT-related projects carried out over the past year at the Home Office, Department of Health, including Connecting for Health. and the Department for Work and Pensions, including CSA.

The Information Commissioner ruled that it was in the public interest for this FOI request to be met in full – except for one high-risk IT-related project, which was so secret it could not even be named.

While it has been a long struggle to get information on the performance status of these high-risk IT projects, Tony Collins notes how “The OGC could have appealed against the ruling but did not – a possible sign of a change in culture at the OGC and within government towards more openness on the progress or otherwise of major IT projects.”

While this openness is welcome, it should be noted that the OGC has decided not to release the entire reports, and the information it has released is at least three years old. Instead, of holding details of gateway reviews secret – and accessible only through Freedom of Information requests – the OGC should embrace openness and transparency.

Ideally, they should publish these reviews – and their RAG (Red,Amber,Green) statuses in an uptodate and accessible manner. Doing so would, as Computer Weekly explains: “increase trust in the Gateway process and in the management of high-risk IT projects and programmes generally”.


IT Dashboard

Creating greater trust and accountability in the performance of Government IT projects is one of the central tenets of the recently released US Federal Government IT Dashboard. Vivek Kundra (US Federal Government CIO) launched the Dashboard as a mechanism to allow the public to view the performance of Federal Information Technology investments.

The Dashboard reveals IT spending across all major Federal agencies. It allows anyone to interrogate budget and spending patterns across Government Departments using a variety of performance metrics. These include evaluating IT projects by Cost, Schedule and Overall rating (as provided by the Agency CIO). Currently nine agencies have finished rating 100% of their major investments. An example of this is the Treasury’s Enterprise Wide Content Management (ECM) Program. This has been rated as 2 (Moderately High Risk) by the Agency CIO and is currently on hold as the “Program lacks an agreed-upon implementation strategy.”

While these CIO and Cost/Schedule ratings are different to the Gateway review process, they represent useful Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to assess the status of IT Programmes. Ideally, the OGC could create a similar dashboard with the RAG status of each investment, along with any CIO explanations or future recommendations – aspects of which are already contained in the gateway reviews. The release of this type of information would allow the public to become more informed about the structure, and status of the UK Government’s IT investment programme.

The results of Sunlight

The US IT Dashboard has been well received by the public with more than 20 million hits to the site so far. It is seen as a powerful medium to provide greater transparency and accountability in the performance of multi-million dollar IT projects. Already, tangible consequences of this transparency and openness have started to emerge.

Vivek Kundra reported on Friday that the Department of Veterans Affairs will be temporarily halting 45 IT projects, because they are either behind schedule or over budget. The combined budget for these projects is approximately $200 million, and the worst offender was a program 110% over budget and 17 months behind schedule. These programs will now be evaluated to determine if they should be canceled or salvaged.

In announcing the decision to halt these projects Roger Baker, VA’s Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology, said:

We will use every tool at our disposal to bring about greater accountability and ensure that taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely.  PMAS [Program Management Accountability System] and the IT Dashboard will be critical indicators of whether our IT projects are on schedule and on budget, and if they are not, we will take swift action to cut down on waste and redundancy.

His interview with Federal News Radio acknowledged that their have been some significant IT failures at the Agency. His view is that by being more transparent and open in the performance of projects, the Agency can mitigate against any future failures.

Kundra attributes the halting of these projects to the transparency enabled by the Dashboard:

We were able to catch these contracts, in part, thanks to our new tool, the “IT Dashboard” which helped shed light on the performance of projects across the federal government.

While the IT Dashboard is an illustration of how transparency can bring accountability to federal spending, Kundra acknowledges it is not a substitute for good management. Rather he believes the value comes from using it to make “evidence-based decisions on the future of IT investments”. Providing easy access to historical performance data – in relation to contractor, agency, technology etc – enables improved fact-based decision making, which can help improve IT budgeting, planning and implementations.

An Open KPI Future?

The US Government has decided to be open and transparent with their KPIs for IT Investments. This should enable the public to question Departments and Agencies more informatively in relation to IT Programmes, and thus make them more accountable for delays or poor planning. This kind of oversight is critical to enable failing projects to be highlighted quickly and either canceled, or provided with extra/different resources to be salvaged.

In the UK we should not be forced to use the Freedom of Information Act to see performance reviews of Government IT Projects. Instead, these KPIs should be freely accessible online to enable a culture of trust to develop in the public’s view of how Government runs large and complex IT Programmes.

The Open Data movement is progressing in the UK with Tim Berners-Lee advising the Government, and high level discussions on a UK version of data.gov. It’s now time to start creating a UK IT Dashboard, so KPIs can freed from behind the walls of the FOI Act.

(Image Credits: USASpending.gov)

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