ICT Council members get ministry apology over Novopay advice

NZ Rise says Ministry of Education failed to learn from other large scale ICT projects

None of the three government-agency CIOs who were wrongly implicated in a misguided decision to go live with Novopay in April last year is prepared to comment further on the matter, having received an apology from the ministry.

The CIOs – Craig Soutar of the NZ Transport Agency, David Habershon of the Ministry of Social Development and Nigel Prince, then CIO of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry - undertook to review specific aspects of the programme in readiness for the “go live” decision, says the report of the Novopay ministerial inquiry.

“The group had agreed to provide this feedback as a form of collegial support to the Novopay Business Owner. They did not realise that their advice would be quoted by the ministry to the minister, as an expression of support of the go live decision,” says the report.

Computerworld contacted all three and received a reply through NZTA spokesman Andy Knackstedt: “The three CIO’s of MSD, MPI [Ministry of Primary Industry; MAF’s new name] and NZTA were members of the cross-government ICT Council which provided advice to the MoE last year, and the role of this group is detailed in the report of the ministerial inquiry,” the statement says.

“The Acting Secretary for Education [Peter Hughes] has accepted the findings of the inquiry as they relate to the ministry and has apologised to the agencies of the three ICT Council members concerned. [This] statement is provided on behalf of all three organisations, and no further comment will be provided. ”

Education Ministry spokesperson Catherine Delore confirmed Hughes’s apology.

Hughes said in a statement earlier this week that he “accepts in full all of the findings and recommendations of the ministerial inquiry that relate to the ministry.

“A team of dedicated people worked hard on delivering a modern online payroll system for schools,” he says

“In the end those efforts fell well short. The ministry did not have the capacity – skills, processes and governance – for a project of this scale and complexity. There was not enough oversight from the leadership.

“Government ministers were not served well by some of the advice and reporting they received, and that is unacceptable. I have apologised to them.

“Schools and their staff were badly let down and I deeply regret that. They deserved much better. I have written to all school principals, board chairs and all schools’ staff today to apologise personally to them.”

Failure to learn from the past

A particularly concerning aspect of the Novopay saga is the apparent failure to take into account lessons from previous large-scale government projects that have gone wrong in similar ways, says Paul Ramsay, co-chair of NZRise.

Like many such projects, the initial business case appears to have overestimated the benefits and underestimated the risks, he says.

It should not be forgotten that large-scale developments like this are not just technology projects; “they are organisational change projects,” Ramsay says.

Novopay represented a radical decentralisation of payroll processing into the schools. The Ministry of Education failed to equip the schools to deal with this major change and “grossly underestimated the support requirement”, he says.

The project clearly should have had “better oversight from the ministry as a whole,” Ramsay says; there was an underestimation of the level of governance and oversight required.

The project became disconnected from the senior level of the ministry, he says. Independent quality assurance was lacking; when Soutar, Habershon and Prince were engaged to look over the project before approval for go-live, they were each given a specific part of the system to examine and they did not see one another’s work. “Someone needed to have a holistic view”, Ramsay says.

The problems, however, go back in NZRise’s view to the procurement stage. The contract was given to Australia’s Talent2. “We feel there were a lot of New Zealand companies that could have done it and done it more cheaply.” Datacom, which developed the previous teacher’s pay system, could have been more carefully considered, he says.

“There is sometimes a false view taken that bigger is better, whether it’s systems or providers; an attitude that this project, to meet New Zealand needs, couldn’t possibly be developed by a New Zealand company; we have to look outside the country.”

That’s wrong, he says; we should be looking to local sources first.

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