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INCIS, NOVAPAY, IRD?

27 June 2018

Rebuilds, reboots and redesigns of government IT systems are notorious for going off the rails and producing spectacular failures.

Even when one of the biggest names in the computer industry was involved, by way of the ill-fated INCIS system of a few decades ago, the results can be awful.

So it was with little surprise that I read of woes with the latest in the growing string of "uh-oh" upgrades -- the IRD's new kick-arse, IT system to end all IT systems.

Shocked but not surprised... that sums up things right now perhaps.

Of course it's easy to stand on the sidelines and point fingers but the reality is that large-scale IT systems are a huge challenge to design, implement, test and commission without significant issues arising. The number of potential points of failure is enormous and when you realise that there's still a lot of wetware involved, it's only natural that things will go wrong.

But why is it that government-related systems seem to have the worst track record?

Perhaps that's down to the culture of government departments?

Remember that in this country, the government is in charge and therefore, if you work for the government, you have power and authority that no "mere mortal" can command.

Interestingly enough, this is never more true than in the case of police and the IRD, two departments whose employees wield gobsmacking privilege and authority over regular folk. Could this "we are superior" attitude have something to do with the failure of the IT projects they commission?

In the case of INCIS, much of the failure was attributed to "moving goalposts". This was because the final spec was never actually "final" and was (reportedly) being constantly revised on an almost daily basis. From a developer's point of view, it is much harder to hit a moving target than one which has been cast in stone and thus rendered immutable.

I think that anyone whose been in the software development game for more than a very short while will empathise with analysts and programmers who are asked "can you just make this small change" long after the final spec has been signed off.

From the user's perspective, it's just a small change -- but often, from the programmer's perspective, it becomes the start of a nightmare.

Of course a good project manager will tell the client to get stuffed when they start rolling up with a steady stream of "requests" for post-sign-off changes because the seasoned professional understands just how quickly these small changes can destroy a timeline and the integrity of the whole system.

But what are you going to do when it's the police or the IRD demanding changes?

Of course I'm jesting... we all know that neither the police nor the IRD would wave their positions of authority and power around as an inducement to do something that ought not be done.

However, regardless of who the client is, too many project managers seem to inevitably cave in to pressure and make "just one little change" after another -- until the result is a dog's breakfast of code that rapidly degrades into a complete disaster (Welcome to NovaPay).

Let's hope that the situation at the IRD is simply a small blip and that the project management team have not succumbed to pressure to start farting around with the featureset of a system that is yet to be fully commissioned. Let's hope they've had the testicular fortitude to say "sod off" when some officious knob has knocked on their door and said "we *really* need you to make this tiny little change".

However, if the shirt does hit the fan and the project has gone off the rails then people ought to be getting their arse kicked -- at all levels, with the biggest boots reserved for those highest up the ladder.

Of course it doesn't help that the IRD minions who, for years, have toiled unwaveringly at their desks, following orders and delivering their best service on behalf of taxpayers, have just been told that a good percentage of them are for the chop.

Management and planning seems a little shaky at the IRD right now.

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