Scary Calendar Effects in Government

I am a big fan of the Obsessive Compulsive Data Quality Blog and Podcast as I have mentioned elsewhere. Jim Harris takes a different, even slightly oddball, view on issues around data quality and data management and I find his podcast interesting, thought-provoking and even entertaining. The most recent episode of OCDQ Radio that I have listened to, entitled: Scary Calendar Effects was a very enlightening discussion on the ways that business time periods impact on IT. It also included a hilarious data quality-horror skit (OCDQ meets Friday the 13th). The most obvious example of one of these calendar effects is the quarterly reporting that US publicly listed companies seem trapped in: the need to report earnings on a quarterly basis gives company boards and executives strong incentives to focus on short-term objectives at the expense of long-term ones. This can impact on the ability of IT programmes and projects (often longer term in both execution and payoff) to gain funding or attention. Jim’s examples were all from the private sector. It got me thinking about what other calendar effects are present in the government sector.

The most obvious one is the annual budget cycle of government agencies. Government agencies are funding by yearly appropriations – that is every year government agencies are allocated a certain amount of money out of central funds. (This is the way it works in New Zealand, and I believe that most Western democracies are similar as are many governments with different forms of government.) This fundamental budgeting cycle has several impacts:

  • It is very hard to win funding for projects that operate over more than one year. The annual budgeting cycle means that multi-year projects need tricky financial measures to have secured funding over multiple years.
  • At the end of each budgetary year there is often a need to spend any left over money quickly as there is a “use it or lose it” aspect to centrally allocated funds. If the budget in any particular year is not spent, then that money will be taken off the department at the end of the year. Even worse, the departmental budget for the next year could be reduced by the same amount! (It should be noted that similar effects do apply in the private sector, but they usually apply at a business unit level and not to the entire organisation like they do in the public sector.)
  • “Secured” funding can be lost if it hasn’t been spent by the end of the budget year.

Another way that calendar effects come into play in government is through the electoral cycle. It is a well-known fact that for a period before an election new initiatives become much harder to initiate. This is for a couple of reasons:

  • Governments don’t want to spend big just before an election as it makes their fiscal position look worse and opens them to criticism by the opposition.
  • Agencies don’t want to start major initiatives as a change in government can mean that these initiatives will be scrapped and the investment and effort wasted.

And after an election, especially if there has been a change in government, the level of activity is reduced and again major initiatives are hard to get going. New governments want a period of time to understand the current position and decide how to implement their election policies and promises before they will start anything themselves or decide what big initiatives they will support.

The last calendar effect (and this isn’t peculiar to the public sector,though it may be more prevalent) is the cycles of approvals and governance committees. All significant government initiatives (and they don’t have to be very large to count as significant) usually have to go before several committees for approval. There may be financial committees, technology committees, legal reviews, and senior management committees depending on the size and type of initiatives. There will usually be an order that a project has to go through these committees. These committees never meet as frequently as you want, and they will usually have a lead time where documents need to be provided beforehand. If your organisation doesn’t have a well organised process for approval the combination of these factors can mean delays of weeks or even months at crucial stages during your project life-cycle.

These calendar effects might look like they are very far from the “real job” of getting ICT work done, but in fact understanding them can play a vital role in the success or failure of your project. If you are a senior IT leader in a government organisation then you ignore them at your peril. People who have a track record of successful delivery understand them and work with them.

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One Comment to “Scary Calendar Effects in Government”

  1. Excellent blog post, Doug.

    Since I have worked almost exclusively in the private sector, it is always interesting for me to read about parallels in the public sector, especially government.

    And I am glad to hear that you continue to enjoy my blog and podcast. Your readership and listenership are greatly appreciated.

    Best Regards,

    Jim

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