Queensland Government CIO Andrew Mills confirmed on Friday night that the Queensland Government has hit a new benchmark - zero red-light projects on its ICT Dashboard.
He told the state parliament’s Education and Innovation Committee that out of a total 119 projects listed across all of Queensland’s departments, not one was currently marked red, meaning no current schemes have breached tolerance parameters in terms of budget, quality or timeline, according to the Government's traffic light system.
The vast majority – or 97 – are tracking along fine on green, according to the latest update.
This represents a major reversal of fortunes in a state which is notorious for its IT failures – and accordingly has raised one or two eyebrows along the way.
The Labor opposition in particular remains sceptical about the rate of change. MPs quizzed IT Minister Ian Walker, Housing Minister Tim Mander and Treasurer Tim Nicholls about puzzling entries from their respective departments during estimates hearings all last week.
“Currently 27 projects reporting significant budget blowouts are still being listed as ‘green’,” a spokesman for the opposition told iTnews.
“According to the Government’s dashboard, a project is listed as green when ‘everything is to plan and the initiatives are within tolerance’. Projects that have had cost blowouts in the millions are clearly not going to plan."
Late on Friday, shadow IT Minister Yvette D’Ath used the Committee’s estimates hearing to quiz Minister Ian Walker and staff from the Department of Science, IT, Innovation and the Arts (DSITIA) on their own Ministerial and Executive Correspondence Solution (MECS).
MECS appears on the dash as running at $349,899, or nearly 40 percent over its original estimated cost, but still retains a green light indicating all is well inside the MECS implementation team.
When challenged by the Labor MP, DSITIA executive Evan Hill explained MECS had been able to get away with a dramatic revision in its budget because “the numbers have been re-estimated” by the project board.
“The project had to be re-baselined as part of the project methodology,” he said. The Minister's office said the business case remained justified so no change was needed.
However this “re-baselining” was highlighted as one of the barriers to transparency by then Government CIO Peter Grant in his 2012 ICT Audit.
“Cost overruns in projects are not always apparent due to regular re-baselining of projects,” he wrote, pointing out that behind this veneer ten percent of significant initiatives he looked at were more than 75 percent beyond their originally approved budget.
Of the 17 projects listed as ‘green’ by DSITIA – the lead agency running the ICT Dashboard – five are over budget to some extent and one has been closed.
When asked by iTnews, Walker could not point to a single set of parameters used to guide agencies where to set the goal posts in terms of the R/A/G ratings.
“Agency governance bodies apply best practice management methodologies including Management of Portfolios (MoP), Managing Successful Programs (MSP) and PRINCE2 to define and manage the specific tolerance levels suitable for each individual project, its risk profile and context,” he replied.
Health payroll has only just been listed. Read on to find out why...
Where did Health payroll go?
Walker told the committee that “the purpose of dashboards is transparency in terms of how IT projects are going”.
“While in some ways this is an embarrassing thing for Government because not every project is green, it is still a necessary protection against the repetition of events like health payroll,” he said.
Somewhat ironically, however, the full extent of the ongoing health payroll remediation and its notorious $1.2 billion bill is not listed on the dashboard. Even remediation work didn't register a mention until recently.
Back in May, Queensland Health CIO Ray Brown told iTnews the reason behind the delay was that the project was the remit of a different area of the department – which it had not quite got round to reporting on yet.
“In February 2014, the Health Services Information Agency began reporting on other departmental initiatives other than its own. This change will be reflected gradually with payroll initiatives to commence reporting in the next update of the report,” he said.
A current portion of the payroll work has now been posted – with a green light – and valued at $37.8 million.
IBRS analyst and former public servant Sue Johnston said she expects the health payroll project isn’t the only initiative that has been missing from the online list.
“You would expect that Transport and Main Roads, health, education, emergency services, even the Department of Natural Resources and Mines or Planning and Infrastructure would have at least a problem project or two,” she said.
The results are hard to reconcile with the findings of the 2012 ICT Audit. Of the some 30 projects Grant picked out as being in trouble just two years ago, only four make it onto the latest edition of the dash.
“If you go back and look at some of the public statements made by the IT minister they proclaim a future where there are no more failed projects under this government’s watch - so the government has a huge interest in what it displayed on those dashboards,” she said.
In the absence of payroll, Health’s turnaround has been particularly dramatic. In October last year half of all listed projects were red (2); amber (6); or on hold (2).
“It is important to note, that project statuses will continue to change and adjust depending on a large number of variables (i.e. billing cycles, contract negotiations, resourcing limitations etc) which may not always be reflected in a current reporting period," Brown said of the improvement.
Is there a better way?
“I have always believed the dashboard is of dubious value,” former Queensland Government CIO Peter Grant told iTnews.
“Agencies select what they put in there and there have been several cases where projects have changed status overnight (generally improving) without any explanation,” he said.
Grant – who has also since joined IBRS – thinks “it would be far better to measure and invest in agency capability because this is the best indicator of project outcomes”.
Sue Johnston argued that the stick approach to project performance could have a negative impact down the track if it makes agencies and staff afraid to point out IT weaknesses.
“One of the real cultural issues of the public sector is that staff are not allowed to make a mistake. This makes it less likely that they will report issues,” she said.
“You have to establish culture from the very top, where people feel comfortable to admit that projects have hit issues loud and proud... you have to be able to reinforce that message repeatedly to create that cultural shift.”
But Walker said his Government is committed to constant improvements to how the dashboard operates.
“Since its launch in late 2013, the Government has been focused on continually improving the usability of the dashboard and making it more in step with the average person’s expectations,” he said.
“As with any government service, the dashboard is regularly reviewed to identify opportunities to improve it. Use of the red/amber/green status is one area currently being reviewed for future releases of the dashboard.”