23 October 2019

New technology to prevent future IT flops in the public sector

PUBLIC IT

Researchers from University of Copenhagen have developed a new technology to help public agencies and organizations avoid IT project failures and save society billions of kroner. The technology allows for a radically different approach to the digitization of an organization from past methods and is already being used by one of the Danish government's largest IT suppliers.

According to Thomas Hildebrandt, rigid and overly complex IT solutions are a major reason why so many public and private IT projects fail. Projects often become too large, inflexible and are inadequately tested prior to a system’s real world release.  

Amanda, Polsag, EFI. The list of major public sector IT project failures is long, with a bill running into the billions of tax kroner. However, after ten years of work in the area, researchers at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Computer Science have developed a new technology that helps organizations digitize their work in a more simple and flexible manner.

Public sector IT systems are often case management systems that help public agencies optimize their workflows and manage the documents of citizens. These systems are usually based on an analysis of organizational workflows. 

"Over the years, a lot of money has been spent on creating great big fancy maps of organizational workflows, without their having worked out in practice. Our new technology takes a more simple and agile approach, based on descriptions of the requirements and regulatory rules that a public agency must adhere to," explains Professor Thomas Hildebrandt, who researches the digitization of workflows and business processes at the Department of Computer Science.

Among other things, the new system provides case workers with a checklist of activities that needs to be resolved prior to a case being closed. The specific tasks needed to achieve a goal are detailed for case workers, without specifying the order in which to achieve them. This allows case workers to manage their work as they see fit, so long as case rules are adhered to. The technology also makes it easy to remove, modify or add new rules should laws change occur or rules become interpreted differently in practice.

Reality is not an assembly line

According to Thomas Hildebrandt, rigid and overly complex IT solutions are a major reason why so many public and private IT projects fail. Projects often become too large, inflexible and are inadequately tested prior to a system’s real world release.  

"Where things go wrong is when you hop into solution mode and describe idealized workflows - when you think that you have an overview prior to implementing a system. Often, without involving users with professional expertise. It's a factory-like mindset that only works with highly-predictable processes," he says, adding that systems running the new technology are far more flexible and easily amended as changes occur - in administrative procedures, for example.

The system has been developed in a collaboration between researchers at the IT University of Copenhagen and DCR Solutions, and has already been adopted for use by KMD, one of the Danish government’s largest IT suppliers, as well as several Danish municipalities, including Syddjurs Municipality. Furthermore, both Deloitte and Implement consultancies have begun to certify their consultants in the new system and the mindset behind it.

So, is this the end of large public and private IT projects that go wrong?

 "That all depends on how quickly people adopt the new approach. We have been drawing Swimlane diagrams for 50 years, an approach that remains somewhat stuck. But with the great amount of interest and spread of this technology, we will hopefully succeed with more and more IT projects while avoiding ineffective or quite simply illegal IT systems in the future," says Professor Hildebrandt.

The new technology is being developed further in EcoKnow, an Innovation Fund Denmark supported research project, where the method of digitizing requirements and regulatory rules remains in its initial phase. The second phase will use artificial intelligence to help digitizing rules and discovering optimal workflows for activities.

Read more about the research here