by CIO Staff

Who Do You Trust

Jul 18, 20073 mins
IT Leadership

Even with a watertight contract, you can't afford to cede project management responsibility

IN HINDSIGHT, the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust should have greeted its consultants’ claims with more skepticism. But the real problem with the handling of the two software projects goes much deeper than that, says Christopher Hoenig, president of Solutions, a Washington, D.C.- based independent consulting and training firm. Though the Trust did most things right during both projects, he says, it erred in one critical area: It ceded project management responsibility to outside consultants and relied on well-written contracts to get out of jams. “This is something that many, many organizations, public and private, fail on,” says Hoenig, who is a former director of information management and technology issues at the U.S. General Accounting Office. “They delegate authority that they themselves should keep, and they allow themselves to be divided and conquered.”

Even though most companies do not have the resources or the expertise in-house to manage complex software projects, they must find a way to retain control over the consultants, he says–even if that means hiring another consultant to help do so.

Public sector organizations are particularly vulnerable in these situations, because they can afford to fail more often and longer than private sector companies. “Public sector organizations don’t go out of business and the customers can’t fire them,” says Hoenig. “You do see these kinds of big failures in the private sector, but they don’t go on for eight years.”

If anyone was a hostage during those eight years, adds Hoenig, it was not the Trust project people, but the Trust’s customers and its customer service staff who spent those years thumbing through paper printouts to look up account numbers. The passing of the years didn’t do much for the Trust’s Honeywell-Bull mainframe, either. One of the system’s more dramatic crashes even made it into the pages of the city newspaper, The Daily Oklahoman, in October 1991, when the Trust could not send out bills for two days. The system limped on while the Trust renewed its search for a replacement.

Stacey Davis, the Trust’s lead business person on the utility-billing system project, is well aware of what the customers and the Trust employees went through, but he is hard pressed to understand how the Trust could have avoided the debacles it faced, particularly with Affinity. “I’ve replayed the whole process in my head time and time again. And if I saw what I saw again, I would probably be more skeptical than I was. But I just don’t know if it would have gotten me to something different,” sighs Davis. “It’s really difficult to deal with a complete untruth.”