Recent experience is showing us that investing in an ICT initiative is one of the highest risk activities the public sector could be involved with. It is surely the case when headlines like \u2018millions wasted\u2019, \u2018years late\u2019, and \u2018minister resigns\u2019 becomes the public\u2019s corporate memory of a complex ICT project. So why does the public sector keep looking for \u2018silver bullet\u2019 ICT solutions when the available evidence shows continued under-performance, under-scoping and under-estimation of complexity and risk?\nThe answer may lie in the way we humans think when we are faced with risk, adversity, ambiguity and complexity. In those circumstances we tend to rely on hope, more than evidence. And if we are senior and powerful, we also tend to believe that somehow, through sheer force of will, we can change the risk environment to suit our wishes.\nThe former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, identified this phenomenon in one of his typically cryptic quotes: \u201c\u2026because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns \u2014 the ones we don\u2019t know we don\u2019t know.\u201d\nMy experience from reviews of major ICT projects in Victoria over the last few years indicate that senior officers rely on project managers to tell them what they need to know, while project managers tend to focus on what they actually know. But no one is looking for the unknown unknown (or \u2018black swan\u2019) issue that may bring down the whole investment.\nComplexity of citizen service need is translating into ICT complexity\nA further part of the problem is the inherent complexity of the citizen service issues that ICT projects are trying to address. Many large and complex public sector issues are often being transmuted into a software or system outcome, well before the organisational or policy (that is, people not machine) matters have been effectively understood and resolved. A few classic examples:\nE-health (development of a cross-jurisdiction and holistic health care model).\nComputers in schools\/education (ostensibly to improve literacy and numeracy).\nSmartcard transport ticketing (to reduce fare evasion and collect trip data).\nE-justice and policing (to improve crime detection resolution).\nSmart (electricity) meters (to reduce energy spikes through live price and usage monitoring).\nMy observation is that it\u2019s not uncommon for complex and expensive initiatives like these to be announced via a ministerial press release.\nTypically, the press release defines a project cost and delivery date, well before a detailed business case, specification or schedule has been developed\u2026 So is it surprising that many of these ICT projects don\u2019t go so well?\nStrategic ICT reviews confirm common trends\nA recent better practice guide published by the Victorian Auditor\u2019s-General\u2019s Office, Investing Smarter in Public Sector ICT, confirms several common themes arising from major ICT investments, such as:\nThe relationships between complexity and risk aren\u2019t well understood (or if they are, they aren\u2019t being explicitly documented for decision makers).\nUnder-scoping is leaving agencies na?ve and more susceptible to \u2018vendor-push\u2019 and \u2018vapour-ware\u2019 offerings.\nProcurement choices often don\u2019t reflect the real \u2018native\u2019 risks that surround ICT projects (the default proposition for the public sector buyer is often a hard-nosed, fixed-cost tender-based contract, rather than risk sharing, relationship-based contracting, such as an Alliance or PPP \u2014 which are now being effectively used in the construction industry for high risk projects).\nThere is a continued and real gap between technology rhetoric and service-delivery reality \u2014 Star Trek is still science fiction.\nPurported benefits arising from ICT investments aren\u2019t being measured, and if they are, they don\u2019t stack up.\nThe better practice guide used a meta-analysis approach by taking the key observations and findings from 10 recent ICT performance audits and examining them for incidence of common risk and problem themes. The themes were then matched against industry and government best practice to give useful advice to public sector practitioners.\nThe way forward\nOne of the easiest ways to avoid public sector ICT pitfalls is to actively and consciously use evidence and better practice to support improved outcomes in your project. It involves a few practical steps:\nRead and reflect on known issues so as not to repeat errors.\nActively watch-out for \u2018optimism bias\u2019, as it is heavily over-represented in ICT projects.\nDuring the planning phase, get a third party review of your business case and key financial models or forecasts, particularly sensitive items such as likely delivery of benefits. You should also use similar project peer review to reduce \u2018optimism bias\u2019 (refer to Professor Bent Flyvbjerg\u2019s writings, particularly his book Megaprojects and Risk).\nEngage a probity reviewer and use them for stage\/gate sign offs during the transaction phase.\nDuring the delivery and commissioning phases, conduct ongoing project-level QA\/progress reviews and adopt a gateway review approach. \nChasing the ICT Holy Grail\nEmbedding citizen-focussed benefits and outcomes into techno-centric solutions and methodologies is a key challenge for public sector technologists. Tips:\nStay focussed on the citizen service outcome and experience, not just the coolness of the app, the colour of the box, or the spin from the vendor.\nRemember you\u2019re spending other people\u2019s money \u2014 would you make the same choices if it was your cash?\nTechnical methodologies fundamentally engineer out the project team\u2019s receptiveness to \u2018black swan\u2019 issues \u2014 keep asking the \u2018What if?\u2019 questions.\nNo matter what the contract says, if it doesn\u2019t work out, the Minister will wear the community\u2019s outrage (and will then come looking for you!)\nPaul O\u2019Connor is a lecturer and doctoral candidate in the School of Property, Construction, and Project Management at RMIT University. He is on sabbatical leave from his position as sector director (performance audit), at the Victorian Auditor-General\u2019s Office, where he has led the Office\u2019s key ICT and major project reviews. Paul also has wide experience in Commonwealth and Northern Territory agencies.