Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Managing Information Technology Projects in the Public Sector

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Managing Information Technology Projects in the Public Sector

Article excerpt

Public sector organizations are being scrutinized and held accountable for their use of funds, now more than ever. Further, taxpayers are increasingly comparing the public sector to the private sector, demanding better customer service. As an added dimension, public organizations find themselves spending more on information technology (IT), even as their budgets come under pressure. In a situation similar to the private sector, public organizations find a large number of IT projects that are over budget, behind schedule, and producing fewer benefits than expected.

The trend in computing is to migrate from mainframe-based systems to smaller computer platforms, frequently employing Graphical User Interface (GUI) software. Such migrations are proving difficult for private sector and public sector managers alike. The problem is more acute in the public sector, however, because the bulk of the IT management experience in the public sector is with mainframe-based systems. Such experience does not translate readily to the skills needed for Local Area Networks (LANs) and client-server architectures.

Project management frameworks have been developed in the private sector that can provide guidelines, but blindly adopting such frameworks to the public sector can be misleading. What is needed is a workable project management framework that addresses the common elements of risk assessment and project management, while taking into account the unique needs of public organizations.

Our purpose in this article is to suggest a framework that will address the needs of managing large-scale IT projects in the public sector. We first discuss the differences between public and private organizations, with emphasis on IT project management. Next a discussion is offered of trends in human resource management systems (HRMS), providing an introduction to the case. The case describes a specific attempt to implement an HRMS in a state government. The case is followed by the presentation of an IT project management framework. We close with a discussion of the lessons learned.

Information Technology in the Public Sector

The role of IT in public organizations has been the subject of numerous research efforts, including a major research program at the University of California at Irvine (Northrop et al., 1990). The Irvine group argued that many of the intended benefits of IT, such as better information for planning and managerial control, had not been realized. A long-term, longitudinal study found that most payoffs from computerization were in the areas of fiscal control, cost avoidance, and better interactions with the public. However, those payoffs were not immediate, and the prospects for future payoffs in these areas were mixed.

Other research has focused on the control of information resources (including IT) at the state level. A national study of state governments investigated new organizational structures, planning processes, and policy formulation activities relating to the acquisition, use, and management of IT (Caudle, 1990). The study concluded that although the focus remained on IT management, public sector management was increasingly considering information itself as an important resource to be managed.

Another study was designed to test the basic premise that management of IT in public organizations differs from that carried out in private sector firms (Bretschneider, 1990). Using a sample of slightly more than 1,000 public and private sector organizations, the study presented a list of potential differences between public and private organizations that could affect the capacity of an organization to manage IT effectively. The differences identified by Bretschneider included the following (MIS stands for the management information systems function in the private sector, and PMIS for the public management information systems in the public sector):

1 .PMIS managers must contend with greater levels of interdependence across organizational boundaries than do private MIS managers. …

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