The governance challenge

14 Nov 2007

One of the major consequences of the pervasiveness of technology in organisations is this: whether you consider ICT to be a general-purpose technology or not, it has a key purpose practically everywhere throughout the organisation.

For governments, as large organisations, the range and flavour of technology being used is enormous and the task of management or ‘governance’ is becoming an issue.
Smarter organisations look upon technology as an asset (rather than a liability or cost centre) that has to be managed well. For individual government departments, the issue of governance and the degree to which it is taken seriously is probably dependent on the level of technology being used in its critical processes and whether or not senior business managers are actually aware of the degree of dependency they have on their technology. For some organisations, the use of technology has revolutionised their operation and there is a high level of awareness of the asset value that ICT has. Given that ICT lends itself very well to transaction processing because of its basic binary nature, you tend to find the big wins where the core processes of the organisation have to do with simple transactions based on rules and the processing of data within clearly defined parameters.

You don’t hear much talk of major breakthroughs in the application of technology to the non-transactional type of work that goes on in organisations – the research and product or service design activity or, in the case of government, the processes around the policy making activity that many organisations do as their core business. But even in these areas, there are technologies such as scenario planning, data mining or modelling systems that could be used and probably will be used increasingly in the future.

How government uses its other assets – physical, human, financial, intellectual, relationships to other departments and governments – seems to be relatively straightforward in that most senior managers can ‘get under the bonnet’ in these. When it comes to technology, many organisations have evolved from mainly paper-based processes, where computers tended to be kept in cages in the early days. Those who make them work tend at times to be a bit challenged when it comes to plain speaking! In those places, the significance of ICT as an asset is not very well recognised or understood. And even when it starts to become apparent, where do they start to come to terms with it?
Another factor that applies more to government is that while it appears to many to be a single entity (and in some ways it is), the asset governances are based on each department or organisation looking after its own affairs – doing its own thing – in a way that conforms to some common rules of procedure and accountability. With many of the assets that have to be managed, this is quite satisfactory. We are also seeing now, for example in the area of financial management, departments are opting to take a shared service approach. This means that while they still look after their own affairs, they get the transactions processed on some other organisation’s computers and save themselves the hassle of the procurement, management and maintenance of computer facilities. Where there are processes and procedures based on the same rules, this makes a lot of sense. But somebody still has to look after the ICT governance in the organisation that provides the computer services.

Maximising the value of investments in ICT means a much more co-ordinated approach to ICT governance across all of the public service. There are a number of fundamental issues to be addressed in ICT governance, starting with the key or core processes that make up the model of the organisation itself. Once that is done, the manner in which technology will be used to support those processes needs to be very carefully considered. For individual organisations, there are challenges around resources and their deployment, procurement options, shared-service possibilities, systems development challenges, infrastructural development and so on. These require decisions at a level where their impact is understood fully in terms of the ‘business’ of the organisation.

But the real challenge comes when we get to take a perspective on government as a single organisation – for the purpose of maximising the returns on the considerable investments that are made. There needs to be a much more centralised view of how our technology is ‘governed’ to minimise duplication and streamline processes that cross the boundaries of the individual departments. The older model of letting everyone do their own thing is not going to be enough to allow the maturing process to continue.

This raises issues about how to ensure that there is the correct level of buy-in within each organisation. Clearly, with organisations as complex as the public service, it is not going to be quick or simple. The start will be a recognition and acceptance that we need to be going in a direction that allows better management of one of the most critical assets in our organisations.

By Colm Butler