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Don't Make These Governance Mistakes (Contributed)

Two state agencies undertook similar projects involving IT. One succeeded while the other failed. Why? It’s a matter of implementing three tools for effective governance and giving stakeholders seats at the table.

Government organizations, like their business counterparts, must be able to pivot rapidly in order to meet shifting demands from their residents, tourists, customers and businesses. To meet these obligations, organizations often turn to technological solutions, which means there is likely to be a conversation about governance. 

In the beginning, governance was the responsibility of the technology department and even today the process remains largely an IT operation. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but IT needs to have a process that also involves the business/program owners.

Program leaders are becoming increasingly tech-savvy and understand that their business is intertwined with technology. As a result, they need to have a seat at the table and be actively involved in governing the projects they are funding. Program leaders also need to understand that their obligations do not stop once the project or program is funded. Effective governance is made up of multiple processes including intake, prioritization, resource allocation, technical change management and much more. 

Three ingredients are needed for effective governance: 

  1. An executive business sponsor who is engaged. 
  2. A clear definition of success; criteria that can be measured; and an understanding of what a finished project looks like.
  3. A communication plan.
You need all three and if you don't have them you need to stop, reassess and get them in place. To highlight my point, here are two projects that I was involved with to varying degrees.

A Tale of Two States

A couple of years ago, two states embarked on similar journeys. Both had big dreams and high hopes for their programs. In the first case, an executive director wanted to change the direction of their organization. This particular agency was plagued with antiquated technology, little understanding of how their clients received services across the various programs, and no effective way to engage with their customers. The processes that were in place were paper-based, time consuming and not meeting expectations.

The agency director knew something needed to change, called a meeting of all section managers and laid out a plan. The director was engaged at the outset of the program and on point in laying out a vision. Once all the section managers aligned with the vision, the agency secured funding and purchased a technology platform. 

The CIO was also involved in crafting the plan and became the program’s executive sponsor. This is a mistake that is often made and is unfair to the CIO. The CIO can be the IT sponsor and if the project is primarily an IT project (email, telephony, network), then they can certainly be the executive sponsor, but if it is a business solution, the agency director needs to be at the table in complete partnership with technology leadership.

Since the CIO was a peer to the section managers, they were not able to set direction when the director stopped being engaged once funding was secured. While everyone recognized the problem, no one wanted to solve it. A communication plan was attempted on three different occasions but was never fully implemented. This led to rumors, gossip, alignment issues, and discontent with the end users who were clamoring to understand why massive amounts of money was being spent and what their role was in the various projects. 

The program was fraught with problems, which stemmed from missing all three of the elements mentioned above (executive sponsorship, success criteria, and a communication plan), not from poor technology. However, this particular organization insisted it had governance because it had a steering committee that met regularly and reviewed the project status, risks and milestones. 

In reality, the agency was just going through the motions and never really understood the principles of good governance. Without the essential building blocks of governance, the project fell behind schedule and ultimately was reduced to a fraction of the original vision. The contractors could never find their proper footing because there was limited direction, resulting in missed deadlines, misaligned features and stunted progress. The customer had to reduce the number of licenses they purchased and they reverted back to older technology that is still not meeting their needs. 

The other state had similar problems. Their current technology stack was aging; they did not have a modern user interface; it took months for new features and functions to be rolled out; and they did not have a good view into the services clients were receiving. To move forward, the agency created a new position and an individual was hired to lead the charge. 

This individual held working sessions with the various stakeholders and validated the challenges everyone faced. The information was condensed and presented to various technology providers to determine what was possible. These discussions were shared with the stakeholders so everyone knew what was happening and had specific channels for feedback. With the challenges understood and the realistic possibilities laid out, the executive sponsor presented a vision to the program users, legislative personnel, budget staff and other associated parties — a necessary process that consumed about six to eight months. The planning paid off and funding was secured for the program. 

Unlike the other example, this executive sponsor stayed engaged and continued to execute on a revamped communication plan. With funding approved, it was imperative to improve and accelerate communications. Everyone had questions, wanted to provide additional input, and needed information about how the changes would impact them and the timing of the new technology. By sending out regular updates, the sponsor was able to keep everyone appropriately focused. As the program progressed, the sponsor used the information that was collected to set clear objectives and success criteria. During town halls and focus groups these criteria were used to aid them in decisions related to priorities, timing and scope. 

Every project has limited funding, so it is critical that everyone agrees to the parameters of a project. Having clearly defined success criteria greatly aids in staying within those parameters or knowing what is being sacrificed if changes are warranted. By staying engaged, setting strong success criteria and sharing those with the stakeholders, and iterating on a communication plan as the program evolved, the project stakeholders followed the basic structure of governance. 

Unlike the first example, this program enjoys major stakeholder support, has received praise from both business and IT leaders and was delivered on time and on budget. In fact, one of the end users stated this was the best solution rollout they had been a part of in their many years of service. 

Follow the Three Rules

These two programs both started off strong, but while the first one broke down pretty quickly, the other one continued to move forward, is enjoying the euphoric feeling of a successful deployment, and has plans for Phase II. It is easy to see where the breakdown occurred between the two programs. As I said in the beginning, governance is a large topic with volumes of information out there about how to govern effectively. 

I think that information is vital to review and consider. I also think that if we don’t pay attention to the basics, we are destined to fail no matter how much information we have at our disposal. Remember, there are three essential ingredients when governing a program: 1) Have a strong sponsor who is engaged and willing to participate in meetings, key decisions and communications. 2) Be sure to have the end in mind and list out the program’s success criteria: Why are you spending the money, what benefits will the users see in the end, and the like. 3) Bring the stakeholders and users along with you and have a communication plan that does not grow stale. 

If you follow these three rules of governance, the chances of project success will increase dramatically.