Delusion? South Australia pledges
“No more big ICT projects”


news The South Australian State Government has issued a new whitepaper designed to provoke discussion of its future ICT strategy, promising as part of the document that from now on, it won’t pursue “big ICT projects” any more, with all technology-related initiatives to last 90 days at most.

In his foreword to the paper, South Australia Connected: Ready for the Future, the state’s Premier and Minister for the Public Sector, Jay Weatherill, noted that the whitepaper (available online in various formats here) had been compiled in partnership with vendor lobby group the Australian Information Industry Association, which represents a number of industry giants such as IBM and Microsoft, as well as smaller players. The Premier noted that South Australia wanted to “embed a new culture of innovation between government agencies, and between government and industry”.

“Using and improving technology allows us to break down barriers that have previously prevented us finding shared solutions to common problems. To improve our ability to innovate, we will work more closely with industry to develop a practical and sensible framework for introducing new technologies into government,” Weatherill wrote.

“It is no secret however, that governments the world over are grappling with an environment in which savings need to be made, while at the same time there is an ever‐increasing demand for services and information. South Australia is not immune from these pressures. That is why we need to respond with a comprehensive, strategic approach for the use of ICT to ensure that we are connected and always innovating, so that the best possible service can be provided to all South Australians.”

In general, the whitepaper does not go into traditional concrete areas of discussion with respect to IT project and service delivery within Australia’s public sector, such as balancing IT outsourcing approaches with internal resources, governing IT projects and different models for delivering such projects, such as in-house development, outsourced development and the new cloud computing/software as a service paradigm.

Neither does the document deal with the sorts of standards and centralised purchasing issues which centralised government IT strategies normally deal with in Australia.

Instead, it outlines a set of principles which the state believes will guide its approach to IT strategy as a whole. For example, some of the directional statements which the state included in its whitepaper include the need to ‘serve people’, ‘secure resilience’, ‘improve delivery’, ‘work together’ and ‘innovate now’.

These ‘directional statements’ are broken down in the document in somewhat more discrete lists of items which attempt to show the definite direction South Australia wants to move in. For example, in the section labelled ‘securing resilience’, it states that it wishes to move from buying software and hardware to buying services, and in the section on ‘working together’, it notes that it wants to move away from departments and agencies competing, and towards a ‘share first’ approach. In the innovation section, it notes that it wants to move away from “big monolithic projects” to “rapid prototyping”.

Most of the statements in the paper are quite high-level and represent in very general terms the broad trends of current thinking with respect to government IT and project service delivery. However, there are some unusual aspects of the paper.

For example, in the ‘improving delivery’ section of the paper, it notes: “From now on, we’re not going to start up any more big ‘ICT’ projects. We’re only going to have service/information/productivity improvement projects. Projects will be shorter, typically 90 days at most, and they will be planned and delivered by multi‐disciplinary teams, not just IT.”

There is a long-term, gradual trend towards smaller, more iterative projects in the IT industry — particularly associated with the Agile software development methodology. However, it is rare that any sizable body of work in IT project delivery would take less than three months to deliver — often it takes at least that long merely to develop a business case to take to decision-makers such as Minister and heads of department.

South Australia appears to be flagging an approach in its document of not investing in major systems enhancements. In another section of the document, it notes: “We need to find smarter, more targeted ways of improving efficiency and effectiveness. Ripping out and replacing systems may seem like a straightforward and strategic response to dealing with so called ‘legacy’ systems. In fact, history teaches us that we may be just creating a legacy for the next generation to worry about.”

“Although we can all too clearly see their deficiencies, we ought not be hasty in condemning our ageing legacy systems. Although they often lack the capabilities and flexibility we see in more contemporary technologies, we have to recognise that, on the whole, they have served our democracy well for many years. Sometimes, they are better left alone, safely isolated via technology ‘wrappers’ that help insulate them from the rest of our technical ecosystem. Over time, data and processes can be progressively shifted to newer, more efficient platforms, an approach which essentially sees legacy systems atrophying, eventually being phased out.”

This approach appears to be similar to the model which Australia’s major financial services organisations, as well as large government departments such as the Australian Taxation Office and Department of Defence, took over the past several decades to the core, mainframe-based systems which still underly much of their operations. The banks were able to overlay modern systems such as Internet banking on top of their ageing core banking systems, and similar approaches were taken at the ATO and Defence.

However, in all of these examples, eventually the organisations were forced to address the issue by undertaking major IT projects with a worth ranging from the hundreds of millions to the billions to replace the systems in the long-run; processes which are extremely long-running. In the case of the National Australia Bank, its core banking re-platforming effort is expected to take a decade in total from start to finish. And even in much smaller initiatives such as payroll systems overhauls in states such as Queensland and New South Wales, underlying systems eventually had to be refreshed.

Other aspects of the state’s whitepaper appeared to run contrary to current thinking in Australia’s state public sector. For example, at one stage it notes: “Often, different parts of government do the same things – differently. Instead of ‘going it alone’ we are going to share solutions across government.”

This approach saw the creation of IT shared services units across various states — Queensland, NSW, Victoria and Western Australia — over the past decade, but the trend broadly been rolled back as the shared services agencies proved unable to cope with key differences between the departments and agencies they were to serve.

The news comes as the Victorian and NSW State Governments have recently also issued new ICT strategy documents as they seek to reform their troubled relationship with IT project and service delivery. Both documents deal with many of the same issues and themes raised by South Australia. However, in comparison, both go into the detail of how they plan to progress their processes and systems — discussing specific technologies and projects, setting specific timeframes and so on. In comparison, the South Australian document could be better characterised as focusing on so-called ‘motherhood’ statements rather than hard actions. The state will now take consultation on the document with a view to formulating a more concrete ICT strategy to publish in future.

If you take a high-level view, this whitepaper by the South Australian Government hits all the right notes. Cross-agency collaboration, open data, communication with citizens, enhanced project governance, iterative development — it’s all in there, just as it is in the similar strategy documents released by the NSW and Victorian Governments.

But I do have several problems with South Australia’s approach; problems I am sure any seasoned IT professional or manager would share.

For starters, the phrase “The Australian Information Industry Association [AIIA] has already generously and effectively collaborated with the CIO in developing this paper” gives me nightmares. Doesn’t that sentence really mean something like: “We’ve let the fox into the chicken yard”? I would consider it highly unusual that an out-and-out lobby group such as the AIIA, which openly represents Australia’s largest technology vendors, would be allowed to collaborate with the Government on developing this kind of whitepaper. The AIIA’s self-serving media release issued today praises the South Australian Government on “getting it right”. Quelle surprise. The AIIA’s lead on the SA project is Peter Fulton, who’s also the regional manager in SA for Technology One, a key supplier of software and services to government in Australia.

Frankly, the AIIA, and all other commercial interests, should be kept right out of the Government’s ICT strategy until it’s public consultation time — then industry can make its own submissions alongside the general public. I really don’t like the fact that the AIIA co-developed this paper; it represents the Government walking a very thin line between being collaboration with industry and having its own policies shaped directly by those with a buck to make out of the process.

The whitepaper’s farcical declaration that South Australia will no longer pursue IT projects longer than 90 days is just a flat out a joke, and I’m sure there are many IT projects which have been going longer than that already in South Australia and will continue on regardless. I can’t think of virtually any IT project of any note which could be delivered in 90 days, and that’s just common sense.

Then too, it’s nice that South Australia wants its departments and agencies to collaborate in pitching for IT funding … but realistically that’s not going to happen easily. The heads of departments and agencies are known for their competitive nature in trying to get projects up, and that’s not going away any time soon. Whole of government CIOs right across Australia over the past decade have consistently found they do not have sufficient power to coerce collaboration between departments.

In addition to all of this, the major issue with the discussion paper is that it’s not detailed enough. It doesn’t go into any detail in virtually any area as to how its nice-sounding “directional statements” will actually apply in real life. It reminds me of Victoria’s first-gasp attempt at an ICT strategy last year, which was similar full of meaningless motherhood statements. Victoria eventually rectified that issue and came up with a concrete plan similar to the excellent one already in progress in NSW; let’s hope South Australia has some substance behind the pretty surfaces in this paper.

Look, I’m not going to sugar-coat this one. If I was an IT professional working in the South Australian public sector, and I read this strategy, I would think something like: “That’s lovely-sounding nonsense. No real application to my job.” And then I would go back to work doing the same thing, day in, day out, with not enough resources and not enough executive support, as I normally did. The South Australian Government has a long way to go before it will be able to convince such employees that it’s serious about driving real positive change with its new ICT strategy — and especially if it keeps the AIIA too close to the process.


  1. Blame the consultants for failed IT projects. They make more profit from extended incomplete projects than efficient development. With such perverse incentives and 10 jockeys to every horse, there should be no surprise they max-out all projects.
    The boomer grey-ceiling has prevented genuinely competent and experienced IT staff from attaining management positions and the IT consultancies “white-ant” these staff anyway. The result is a very sick IT culture in most large organisations.
    Bring in genuine accountability and get rid of the jockey stack above the workers that do the work…if you have 4 coxwains to a rower do yo *really* expect results?

    • Blame the project committees who are normally fulltime public servants. I’ve been involved with tenders into SA and each selected solution ended up being a system that had went a distance away from the orginal specification target. The cause of this was obvious as it had everything to do with the professions of the majority of the final selection panelists – a profession not being the actual target beneficiary of the solution but who’s selection panel members obviously realised they could adroitly get a system to solve a problem for themselves. Needless to say the solutions failed misably, costing millions, and even then run in trial only before being yanked.

  2. It’s good that you picked up this report Renai … we are actually at quite an interesting juncture with regard to state government ICT strategy at the moment, with most of the states attempting to forge new ICT directions at the same time as the ICT industry is undergoing a significant inflexion point in its evolution.

    I’m trying to get together some research perspectives on the various approaches of the states, so it is good to ‘get the juices’ flowing with some banter here on Delimiter … feedback much appreciated.

    I agree with your reaction to the suggestion that agencies will share common solutions … its sends shivers up my spine. Shared services can only work when the services were designed to be shared and the service provider is in the business of providing affordable, high quality shared services on an arms-length basis to customers who are intelligent consumers of a shared service … and have chosen the service because it is better, faster, less costly and/or less risky.

    The proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ for each of the states is their inability to genuinely confront the causes of ICT-enabled-business-transformation project failure in any systematic way. The causes run deep, and need to be sheeted home directly to the heads of departments and agencies as ‘business’ problems, rather than ‘ICT’ problems. ICT is so integral to the delivery of any policy or service delivery program now that for a senior executive to say “I don’t know how to manage a successful ICT-enabled-business-transformation project” should be regarded as the same as saying “I don’t know how to do my job”.

    The sad fact is that many senior executives in government actually do not know how to do their jobs in a 21 century public sector … and just hope not to be involved in an ICT project. As a demonstration of this, the annual IPPA conference in Melbourne last year comprised a large number of luminaries speaking on all aspects of public sector reform and innovation … with very few providing any practical guidance about how ICT could be better managed BY EXECUTIVES to enhance public value. In truth, the executive branch of the public sector has ‘tuned out’ of ICT … regarding it as an unfixable basket case … and really just about plumbing anyway. ICT projects are smelly and career damaging … best left to the tradespeople.

    Much of the reason that we are in this position is that the past decade of ‘big project’ public sector ICT founded on shared and common services/systems has been not much short of abysmal, so executives retreating from such ICT projects is a perfectly rational response.

    The core of the issue is an inability of leaders (usually bought in from the corporate sector) to understand the fundamental organisational dynamics of the Westminster system of government and the primacy of agency autonomy. Any ‘solution’ needs to be engineered on the assumption that the long-run picture is for agencies to be diverse and autonomous. Any strategy that requires the imposition of one-size-fits-all solutions and sharing between agencies is an unnatural act and is intrinsically unsustainable, expensive and risky. This is simply an observation of historical fact.

    One way to think of it is to view whole-of-government sharing strategies as creating a socialist economy. A secret police force rounds up a commune of sullen and unwilling comrades and forces them into collective action, starving them of resources and imposing perverse incentives and autocratic arbitrary decision making to impose one-size-fits-all products and services … beseeching the comrades to be happy driving around in their smoky old Trabants. This can only work while there is an autocratic leader and a strong police force … and the comrades don’t have access to the TV … or the Internet to see how other folks live outside of the commune.

    A capitalist economy, on the other hand, is founded on notions of diversity, transparent signals and choice. Large groups of citizens (market segments) can end up all using the same product or service … but they do so by choice because it is aligned to their individual needs and preferences … influenced by persuasive marketing.

    Mandated shared services and common applications are socialism, and are therefore unsustainable and risky. Cloud services – most particularly SaaS – are a pure capitalist economy model. Agencies make individual choices to select a service that meets their needs and inherit many desirable attributes such as economies of scale, pooled investment, iterative evolution, SOA, mobility, usage based pricing etc. The truth is that the cloud services model is perfectly aligned to the ICT needs of governments because cloud services are engineered from the outset to serve the needs of a diverse customer base with a configurable but standardised solution. The customers of a SaaS provider act autonomously and yet still benefit from the collective commitment of all the other customers in the creation of a shared resource – on a scale many orders of magnitude greater than they would otherwise have been able to achieve (even with the secret police).

    The practical problem, of course, is that cloud services are still not yet mature and fully available for all areas of functionality required by agencies. THIS IS WHERE GOVERNMENT POLICY NEEDS TO FOCUS … on stimulating the development of a robust and trusted portfolio of public sector cloud specific services in Australia.

    The fact is that much of dominant wisdom behind whole-of-government ICT strategy has proven to be a failure … perhaps some of the ideas were sensible, but the ability to execute was just not there … so in the end the ideas were impractical. “The medicine is fine, but the patient keeps dying”. We are kidding ourselves if we believe that ‘just trying harder’ will deliver any better results.

    The SA government is right to suggest that shorter, more agile, projects are part of the solution … but getting to this point means dismantling a whole bunch of dysfunctional ICT strategy and procurement machinery. It also requires changing the mindset of senior executives about the role of ICT as an enabler of business transformation and the way to go about sourcing and managing ICT capabilities.

    A starting point is to dismantle the anti-agile, ICT=plumbing, whole-of-government machinery … whole of government CIO functions and out-dated shared services, procurement and risk management functions founded on socialist economy principles. We need to see these constructs as a big part of the problem. While it seems crazy, the answer will be found in skilling and empowering agency executives to make better ICT sourcing decisions individually and autonomously … but with a better ‘bigger picture’ understanding … and using Internet-age solutions and approaches. Cloud services + agile approaches = productivity and innovation.

    Government CIO: SCHOCK! HORROR! But … but … they might go out and do lots of stuff … and some of it might not work … and it might not interoperate!

    Steve: Duh … you mean like it is now? At least the results would be aligned to agency priorities and service delivery imperatives, be more cost effective, and deliver more direct benefits to citizens. The experience of early adopters of cloud services in the Australian public sector is that the results were universally better, faster, less costly and less risky.

    Government CIO: But … but … splutter … what about citizen centric government? What about joined-up services? We’d just have all of these fragmented dead-end cloud services all over the place!

    Steve: What, like the Internet you mean? Services in the Internet seem to interoperate quite well … have you heard of service oriented architecture (SOA) and application program interfaces (APIs)? Some things will work and some won’t but the projects will be quicker, lower cost and less locked-in than traditional in-house, shared services or outsourced solutions … so mistakes will cost less and be more easily corrected. Anyway, once services develop a reputation as being good and trustworthy their use will spread – so agencies will be buy services that they already know work… as I always say, “cloudy is as cloudy does”. Cloud services are defined by their evident success today … not the promise that they may succeed sometime in the future.

    Government CIO: Well, we tried that SOA stuff years ago and it didn’t work … each project just did its own thing, nobody wanted to reuse another person’s web services. We need more discipline! SOA Police … hah … we’ll make them comply! Surely we still need a central office to … you know architect it all, set standards … and (with relish) shoot the odd offender every now and again just as a lesson to the others?

    Steve: To some degree, but by leadership man … can’t you see that? Anyway, it is better just to use international standards rather than to create ‘dead end branch line’ local standards … and each agency needs to take responsibility themselves for interoperating with the other agencies in its workflow … this approach seems to work well in the web services arena. Services that don’t play nicely with other kids in the schoolyard don’t thrive. It’s also easier when services are architected using SOA and APIs are published transparently … like in cloud services. The leading cloud services actually do interoperate pretty well using APIs.

    Government CIO: Your dreaming … it would create chaos … like it was 10 years ago … well … it still is really (mumble). Anyway, what would I do? How does a government CIO add value when all the action is happening in agencies? Agencies are just children … they need strong parenting to grow up proper.

    Steve: The way to mitigate the risks of mistakes, siloed behaviour and data archipelagos is by accelerating the transfer of organisational learning across agencies – not by creating thick rule books, imposed ‘best’ practices and quality control inspectorates. You should redefine your role as Chief Learning Officer … maybe? Stop mucking around ineffectually with ICT plumbing stuff and focus on engaging with executives to support the propagation of good ideas across the agencies.

    In summary (gasp!) what would I like to see as the core concepts in a state government’s ICT strategy:

    1. CLOUD FIRST PROCUREMENT POLICY: Outcomes? short-circuit out-dated in-house ICT delivery models, build Internet-age skills and encourage the development of public sector cloud services in Australia which can then be consumed by all other agencies in all other jurisdictions.

    2. SUCCESS SHOWCASING AND LEARNING: Outcomes? (re)build moral and disseminate good news stories, good practices and lessons learned across agencies. (This should be done using face-to-face events and social networking platforms to create a vibrant and dynamic sharing of organisational learning across the public sector).

    3. EXECUTIVE LEADERSHIP PROGRAMS: Outcomes? reframe the way all executives (including secretaries, director generals and CEOs) view ICT as a catalyst for policy and service delivery reform and the way they view how to source and manage ICT capabilities.

    As a rule of thumb:



    • Well said.

      Some government agencies would be better served by getting involved in setting of some of the community standards for services like OGC than designing there own, Look at Inspire in Europe.

      This would get the vendors involved and make it more common place for business and people to access the services. Providing the information in a standardised way for a subject area is a much more cost effect than governments trying to build public access systems for all..

  3. Thanks Steve, I enjoyed the read.

    One word of caution (of about 500 I can think of), I am seeing the adoption of Agile Project Management but it is being used as an excuse not to define requirements, schedule or accountability.

    Agile is the current buzzword but it is really being used as a barrier against delivery.

    • Hi Bruce,

      Yes … of course … there are many ways to turn a silk purse into a sow’s ear through incompetence, inexperience and lack of skills/training.

      Agile practices are not an excuse just to ‘wing it and see how things turn out’.

      If, however, we are talking about professional folks doing sensible things with adequate training and experience and using enterprise-grade tools and solution platforms then the benefit of the agile approach is undeniable vs. traditional waterfall approaches – if only because business results are delivered earlier and the solution can be iterated in shorter cycle times to fine tune it to evolving business needs.

      Brian Wernham’s book Agile Project Management for Government is a good source of inspiration … read my review on


      • Steve, the most non-sales thing you said which actually made sense was “professional folks doing sensible things with adequate training and experience”. Since the dawn of IT-time there has always been a new methodology/toolset that would deliver “PRODUCTIVITY and INNOVATION”. We’ve tried them all in and most cases found each and everyone wanting. Certainly, there are cases where each have worked quite successfully, usually because the application fitted (rare) and there were “professional folks doing sensible things with adequate training and experience”. But mostly they failed dismally, and in some cases because of, as you intimate, a lack of knowlegeable Executive Management. But that was surely more about a lack of awareness of realistic expectations and departmental service and budgetary pressures and a host of other organisational issues facing the Department and/or the CIO.

        Cloud and agile offer no more opportunity than any other enhancement of methods and tools than at any time in the last 40 years. Its just another method/tool set that requires any IT department to spend time finding the right “professional folks doing sensible things with adequate training and experience”, when they are finding it hard to get “professional folks doing sensible things with adequate training and experience” to deliver with the methods/tools they currently have in place.

        • Hah … yes … OK … I’m a ranter and a raver. ‘Sales’ though? What do you think I am selling? Ideas? Thought leadership? Concepts? The future?

          Ovum is in the business of challenging executives with perspectives and ideas about how ICT can be better applied and managed to deliver innovation. So, yes, of course I am selling ideas.

          You say “Cloud and agile offer no more opportunity than any other enhancement of methods and tools than at any time in the last 40 years”. Hmmm … I suppose I fundamentally disagree on two counts. (1) The product of the past 40 years of your ‘enhancements’ is a pattern of ‘snakes and ladders’ evolution of ICT capabilities in too many organisations … under-funded, risky, unsustainable, amateur hour stuff. Some organisations do ICT well of course, but far too many do not … so the status quo is not a safe place. ICT for many organisation is an unsolvable puzzle. [Lucky you that your organisation is not in this position b.t.w!] (2) Cloud and agile implemented for appropriate use cases by “professional folks doing sensible things with adequate training and experience and using enterprise-grade tools and solution platforms” – are a game changer because they enable resource-constrained in-house ICT departments to leverage proven shared services to implement better business solutions faster and at lower cost. I have researched case studies which demonstrate this … so it is not just idle talk.

          Sure I hear your criticism that I am an over-zealous evangelist … but some degree of that is necessary to be heard. I’m not naive however, I have been in the ICT strategy and management game for coming up to 30 years … so I have seen new ideas come and go. A substantial source of motivation for my cloud services enthusiasms is simply the observation that many organisations are coming to the end of their tether on ICT: ageing assets, ageing staff, low staff moral, high staff turnover, historical under-investment, budget cuts, fragmented architectures, legacy complexity, project failures … despite the best efforts of lots of smart and well intended folks in the ICT department. Unless you have a magic wand the only way out is to relieve some of the pressure by accessing enterprise-grade shared services to gain economies of scale and Internet-age functionality … which is what cloud services are. The operational characteristics of cloud services enable more agile projects … better, faster, less expensive and less risky. Not for everything, sure, but certainly for some things and some organisations. QED.

        • hey there Syzygy,

          please be mindful of our comments policy:

          “Firstly, as before, comments must be more or less ‘polite’, as measured by Australian social standards. This doesn’t mean you need to maintain the sort of conversation level you would use with your mother. It just basically means don’t be rude to other commenters. You may disagree with their opinions, but you should respect their right to hold them.”


          Delimiter Ubermind

  4. Hi Renai, Steve and others

    The videoed presentations from the summit at which SA Connected was released are now available online:

    They provide further context for the draft themes and positions in SA Connected.

    (They are captioned – just use the CC button to activate).


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