This week I visited a shared service organization that manages, among other things, the jurisdiction-wide e-government portal, including a number of widely utilized components supporting content management, electronic forms and payment.
Some of the statistics they shared with me, although I have not yet verified them, looked quite promising, and so was their reputation among most of the other agencies I visited. For instance, their payment engine is being used for purposes as diverse as collecting speeding tickets and business license fees, with individual agencies providing their front-end branding, and the payment process being centralized. Also, their portal looks remarkably well designed, with the same look and feel for content provided and managed by different departments.
The discussion was about the future challenges of supporting transactional services as well as the trend toward government 2.0 and engagement with the community. The problem the organization is running into is that, since they have been running their services quite effectively and efficiently, without either going over budget nor failing delivering on their service levels, they are having a hard time at proving the value of they are doing to the rest of government.
We are so used to read stories about projects that go over time and over budget, or simply fail, and about the excessive cost of infrastructure or application management in the public sector, that meeting people who are not causing any significant technical or business issue is quite refreshing.
On the other hand, they have become victims of their own success. As things have been running smoothly, there is an expectation that they will continue doing so, and their services are being seen as a commodity more than adding value.
How do you demonstrate the value of a commodity? This reminds me of a conversation I had several years ago with a portfolio manager in a government department in the UK. He said that justifying the spending for infrastructure upgrades using their (pretty well developed) portfolio management process was so hard that they had to develop worst-case scenarios or other types of scenario-planning approaches to justify that. Otherwise, specific business applications or customer-facing initiatives would always prevail over department-wide infrastructure improvements.
Isn’t it ironic that complaints about government screwing up IT projects make the news that often give IT most visibility, while well-run services are given for granted and need to beg for further funding?