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Gaffer Tape And Glue Delivering New Zealand’s Mission Critical Services

Every debt, eventually, has to be repaid. Right now, the day of reckoning is fast approaching for one of the most crippling, but least discussed, debts burdening government across New Zealand – technical debt.

Technical debt is the cost of generations of incremental investments in legacy technologies to tease additional functionality or life from them.

Spending more on what you already have can seem like the fastest solution to getting a new function or service in place. Other times such a decision is driven by the sheer weight of all the money spent in the past. But no one thinks they should keep a car forever because of how much they have spent to keep it running over the years. We understand the sunk money is gone, and that future spending on a safer, more efficient, more comfortable, more reliable, better equipped new car is better value.

In technology, the sunk investment is not just in actual systems. Change can impact users, advisers, old technology partners and disturb the established ways of doing things.

Meanwhile, the debt grows larger and larger, and gets harder and harder to retire.

Systems so old they are now held together by gaffer tape and glue are delivering mission critical services in governments all around the world. From securing borders to managing payment and revenue systems, these systems not only cannot be turned off, they require constant and increasingly costly maintenance.

Technology debt is creating not just a financial deficit, but encouraging a deficit of imagination that discourages decision makers from embracing the new. The risk of failure is so great, “sticking to what we know works” seems the only safe option. Too often, it proves a fool’s errand.

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The lucrative deals made by the Big Four consulting firms and system implementers compounds the problem. They make a very good living patching up systems with bandaids.

When large multinational corporations promised modern replacement systems and real digital transformation and efficiencies, they too often delivered little beyond timeline blow-outs, exceeded budgets and a questionable return on investment. Meanwhile, more and more of scarce internal IT budgets are consumed keeping old systems supporting critical services from falling over, making it seemingly impossible to pay for new systems to replace them.

If these were bridges or roads owned by governments, their decrepitude and the rising cost of maintenance would be obvious and demand action. We know infrastructure needs to be rebuilt, expanded, retired and replaced. And, most importantly for information and communications technology infrastructure, it needs to be kept up to date.

Apart from the rising risk of failure, the financial burden of servicing government technical debt is reaching a point where policy makers will be forced to confront the problem to rein in unproductive spending.

The first step is to reduce both the cost and the risk of transitioning to new systems. That sits in large part with the technology industry. Consultants advising governments on technology need to accept their share of the blame too. The spotlight shone on conflicts of interest by the Big Four consulting firms is raising some uncomfortable questions about their tangled business relationships in the advice and technology industries.

On the demand side, Ministers and agency heads need to step in and push the industry to show more imagination, while also questioning how they can reduce their own internal switching costs and simple resistance to change. In New Zealand, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) has made a start on this, leading the TechnologyOne Cloud Framework Agreement (CFA) with Digital.govt.nz. The agreement is designed to make it easier for New Zealand government agencies to adopt SaaS-based operations, and bring forward the benefits, by adopting a common conceptual framework.

With the recent change of government in New Zealand after the National Party’s win last October, now is the time to rethink the approach to IT implementations to support agencies in delivering on policy, governance, investment and innovation.

So, the question is, will we see government spend ten times more than necessary with the Big Four, risking more failed ICT projects, or will they choose a regional, proven solution provided by a tech partner trusted by public sector organisations across New Zealand and Australia?


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