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IT Steering Committees in Municipal Settings

 

In most organizations, IT is a scarce resource with more demand for its services than available funds or capacity. In municipalities, this issue is compounded by the relatively independent goals and objectives of different departments: Engineering vs. Parks and Recreation, Fire vs. Transit, Community Services vs. Traffic, and so on. An IT Steering Committee is an element of IT governance that brings the needs of these diverse groups into a central point for prioritization and approval. This research note covers:

  • Key factors that motivate municipal administrations to establish an IT Steering Committee.
  • Mandate of an IT Steering Committee.
  • Need for committee members to have decision making authority.
  • Recommendations for running the committee smoothly.
  • Signs that an IT Steering Committee is less effective than it should be.

This research note examines the role and form of IT Steering Committees in municipalities.

Strategy Point

IT Steering Committees are used by more than 60% of organizations to ensure that IT priorities align with corporate strategy. These committees provide a venue to share decision making and gain group consensus for major IT investments. They allow representatives from across the organization to collectively prioritize projects to move ahead on corporate strategies and objectives.

However, whereas many enterprises can focus decision making around a cohesive strategy of products, services, and customers, municipal administrations deliver a mosaic of diverse and independent services. Info-Tech Research Group explored whether IT Steering Committees are effective in the face of independent and competing service objectives.

Based on discussions with city and county IT leaders, the short answer to this question is yes, IT Steering Committees are effective in municipal administrations. In fact, an IT Steering Committee is more important in a municipal setting than in any other.

Key Considerations

The IT Steering Committee

An IT Steering Committee is a governance group responsible for making overarching decisions concerning IT priorities. It has three key responsibilities:

  1. IT Strategic Planning: Confirming that IT’s major priorities for the next 12 to 36 months are consistent with the goals and objectives of the municipality. This means that the relative merits of business initiatives requiring IT resources must be weighed and prioritized.
  2. IT Project Approval: Specific project proposals are evaluated based on alignment to the strategy and strength of business case.
  3. IT Project Prioritization: All approved projects must be prioritized and scheduled based on strategic impact and department and IT resource availability or constraints.

In addition to these three core responsibilities, IT Steering Committees also provide a venue for monitoring progress of major initiatives and for executive education concerning IT trends in municipal settings.

Role of the IT Steering Committee

Municipalities establish IT Steering Committees for several reasons. First, IT is a scarce, shared corporate resource. Invariably, the wants and needs across all the municipal departments outpace IT’s ability or capacity to fulfill them all. Tradeoff decisions must be made; one department’s project will proceed, another’s will be deferred.

In the absence of an IT Steering Committee, these decisions often fall to the IT Leader, putting him or her in the unenviable position of explaining to department heads why their initiatives have to take a back seat to others. Or worse, decisions are made in a fragmented or uninformed manner resulting in over-committed IT resources, duplicate or redundant initiatives, or failure to recognize the opportunity to apply department-specific solutions more broadly.

An IT Steering Committee brings business leaders together to evaluate the trade-offs and reach consensus on which projects are in the best interest of the municipality.

Second, IT projects are not really IT’s projects. They are integral to municipal services and departmental programs. As such, they should be assessed and evaluated with a broad, enterprise-wide perspective.

Third, an IT Steering Committee provides an open venue for decision making involving leaders from across the administration. Trade-off rationale can be clearly communicated and decided. The planning, approval, and prioritization process is understood by municipal leaders. With this understanding, they can communicate final decisions and rationale to their respective management teams and staff. Several organizations interviewed for this research note indicated that the IT Steering Committee served to break down the walls between departments, improving mutual understanding of issues and challenges that each faces in daily operations.

While essential in a municipal setting, an IT Steering Committee is effective in any situation where an organization has multiple departments or divisions with distinct goals and objectives.

IT Steering Committee Members

To be effective, those who sit on the IT Steering Committee need to be decision makers; senior managers who can represent their respective departments with authority. Info-Tech recommends, at least in early stages, that the Chief Administrator of the municipality and the heads of each major department sit as members. After the committee has been working smoothly for some time, other managers can be designated, but only if they have decision making rights for their respective departments.

The IT leader should also be a member of this committee, even if not considered a department head. In some instances, the IT leader sits on the committee but is considered an ex-officio member, with no decision rights.

Some municipalities have included members of council and community representatives on the IT steering committee. A councilor can inject a political perspective into the decision making, advising the committee concerning the prevailing tone or climate of council issues. A councilor typically has an equal voice in deciding priorities. Community representation can be particularly useful when municipal priorities include changes to citizen or business services. Community representatives are typically ex-officio members without the decision rights of other committee members.

There are several options for the committee chair. The Chief Administrator or deputy may assume the role. A department head may be designated or elected. The chair may rotate from member to member. The IT Leader may be appointed as the chair. In some cases, a neutral party is engaged to chair the committee to objectively facilitate committee proceedings.

Running the IT Steering Committee

Done well, there is a lot of effort involved in running the IT Steering Committee.

Prior to the committee meeting, appropriate material is collected or prepared:

  • IT Strategy. Usually a comprehensive report, the IT Strategy typically outlines how the municipality intends to use information technology in its delivery of new or enhanced services and programs. The report will often discuss how trends in technology offer potential business advantages. And lastly, the report describes solutions that are at or nearing the end of their useful life. Prepared annually, the IT Strategy is on the agenda during the planning and budgeting period. For more on this topic, refer to Info-Tech’s OptimizeIT offering for IT Strategy and Planning.
  • Project Proposals. A project proposal should provide sufficient information to permit committee members to weigh the relative merits of the project. Usually about three or four pages in length, the proposal should focus on the business plan. The proposal is not a project charter. It includes:
    • Organizational sponsorship: indicates for whom the project is a priority: Council, corporate administration, a specific department.
    • Project objective: whether to address a new or changed regulation or policy, mitigate a liability or risk, correct an administrative failure, or to commence a new or enhanced municipal service.
    • Project scope: impact on citizens, businesses, Council, municipal departments, managers and staff.
    • Total Cost: order of magnitude or qualitative cost estimate for both the project and for sustaining the solution over time plus whether funding is in place or whether the costs are covered by revenues associated with the service or program.
    • Risk Assessment: technical or business risk involved in doing the project or the impact of not doing the project.
    Project proposals are usually developed by a business analyst working with the sponsoring organization. 
  • Project Prioritization. When new projects have been proposed, municipal priorities have changed, or assumptions concerning business and IT capacity or ability are in error, the project list needs to be reprioritized. Prioritization criteria reflect the information contained in the project proposal. Use Info-Tech’s Project Prioritization Tool to maintain a prioritization framework. A tool is less necessary where the overarching municipal priorities are well understood and committee members are well-aligned in their support for those priorities. For more information, refer to Info-Tech’s OptimizeIT program on Project Prioritization.
  • Project Dashboard. For major initiatives, the IT Steering Committee should be appraised of progress. Particularly where projects have encountered challenges, committee members are uniquely positioned to rally resources and recommend alternate courses of action. See Info-Tech’s OptimizeIT program for more on Portfolio Monitoring and project dashboards.
  • Other presentations. Because IT is ubiquitous and integral to municipal services and programs, it is important that the senior group governing IT investments be aware of trends and possibilities. Whether they are about advances in Geographical Information Systems (GIS), uses of tablet computers such as the iPad, or innovative e-citizen solutions, periodic presentations can keep senior management engaged with the IT Steering Committee.

Preparation can also involve some degree of pre-selling of proposals. Project sponsors meet with members to solicit support for their proposals. Sponsors can assess the likelihood of committee support before the proposal even gets to the committee meeting.

With good preparation, the actual committee meeting should unfold predictably. Usually the agenda is straightforward:

  • Status review of the current IT project portfolio.
  • Summaries of the key proposed initiatives for the period.
  • Committee discussion and related business.

The meeting itself works well when the chair or facilitator keeps the discussion moving forward and proactively brings the group to decision points. For the most part, consensus is the preferred method for reaching a conclusion, though several municipalities interviewed for this research note indicated that a voting process was in place. However, other organizations that had attempted voting were clearly dissatisfied with it, indicating that it negatively politicized proceedings.

In the event that member behavior becomes overly partisan, it is the responsibility of the chair or Chief Administrator to respond. They must remind members of the mandate and collective goals of the Steering Committee. Similarly, there will be occasions where the group will reach an impasse, where finding common ground or reaching consensus is elusive. Resist the temptation of majority rules or to establish a tie-breaker. These are techniques of last resort. Focus instead on the approval or prioritization criteria; discuss and reach agreement criterion-by-criterion, which then roll up into an overall conclusion.

After the meeting, it is important to document and communicate key decisions. Whether posted to the corporate intranet or e-mailed to committee members, project approvals and prioritization should be maintained openly and transparently.

Meeting Frequency

Most municipalities interviewed held monthly committee meetings, although the agenda was not exactly the same each month. In the period leading up to budget approval, the committee is primarily occupied with IT strategy, project approval, and prioritization. Subsequent meetings are focused on reviewing project progress, regulatory or legislative factors that affect priorities, and informational presentations.

Those organizations that restricted the agenda to project approval and prioritization generally met quarterly. Some smaller municipalities integrate project planning into budget planning and only hold Steering Committee meetings during the period of budget preparation.

Not all prioritization decisions can wait for the next scheduled meeting. Establish a contingency to accommodate urgent situations: minimum required members, protocol for calling an impromptu meeting, and process for communicating decisions to absent members.

Keys to Success

  • Support from the top. Without senior leadership commitment, an IT Steering Committee is doomed to failure. The Chief Administrator (CAO, City/County Manager or Commissionaire) or Council needs to actively promote the formation of the committee and ensure committee members attend regularly.
  • Clear mandate. Plainly define and communicate the role, responsibilities, and procedures of the IT Steering Committee. The first step in forming a committee is agreeing upon the terms of agreement to which all members and stakeholders will adhere.
  • Shift of accountability. Tradeoff decisions, to put one project ahead of others, must shift from the IT Leader to the IT Steering Committee.
  • Committee member consensus. Consensus is not the same as unanimity. Consensus means that all members can support the committee’s decisions and will publicly do so. A visible lack of consensus will lead to distrust and eventually render the committee ineffective.
  • Strong facilitation. The committee chair needs to keep a firm grip on committee procedures and discussion to ensure that decisions are reached, and that the meeting maintains alacrity. While most committee members will align readily with municipal priorities, anticipate that there will be a project highly favored by one department that will not receive the support needed to solicit a decision to proceed.
  • Departmental level triage. Some degree of project coordination and triage should occur at the departmental level before proposals are brought to the committee. This ensures that when multiple proposals come from the same department, those proposals have already received scrutiny, approval, and prioritization from department leadership.
  • Maintain momentum. Set meeting frequency based upon an agenda of meeting topics that will engage committee members. When projects are up for approval and prioritization, the need for attendance is compelling – absence will risk favored projects being deferred. However, if a meeting is to review project status, emphasize the need for involvement to remove project obstacles and to make decisions in the best interests of the enterprise. If a meeting is informational, ensure that the topic is compelling and interesting to a senior audience.

Recipes for Failure

  • Members without authority. A steering committee that fails to make decisions will quickly become a forum of debate and discussion with no outcomes. It is better not to form a committee if decision rights are held back.
  • Lack of interest. A committee where attendance is poor will quickly result in an inability to reach an effective consensus. If representation from key departments is missing (Engineering, for example), the collective authority of the committee is weakened. Decisions will be challenged and likely rescinded.
     To encourage members to attend, make it a disadvantage to avoid the meeting. In other words, since technology is often integral to a member’s department to achieve its goals and objectives, attending meetings is a way to ensure that the technology investment needed is considered high priority by the IT Steering Committee. Failure to attend puts member initiatives at risk.
  • Too many members. In some cases, departments may request that several managers participate to ensure that each major service and program is represented. However, a large committee can become unwieldy and difficult to facilitate if too many members are competing to be heard. After all, the whole point of the committee is to raise perspective to an enterprise level, which may be difficult for champions of a specific service or program. Restrict membership to one representative for each department or division.

Recommendations

Follow these recommendations to establish an effective IT Steering Committee:

  1. Solicit support. Meet with each department head and the Chief Administrator to make the case for the IT Steering Committee. Use the points in this research note to justify the rationale behind this important governance body. Encourage one senior manager to act as champion for the initiative.
  2. Identify members. Work proactively with department heads to identify committee members. If possible, start with the department heads themselves. Suggest that the IT Steering Committee meeting can be an extension of a pre-existing meeting of municipal leadership.
  3. Establish clear mandate and procedures. Document the terms of reference for the committee: scope of responsibilities, decision rights, process for proposals, procedures for prioritization, meeting frequency, and communications.
  4. Thoroughly prepare for the first meeting. Committee members will judge the efficacy of the committee after the first meeting. Ensure that it goes smoothly. Prepare materials thoroughly, particularly project proposals. Plan the meeting carefully from proposal presentations to the prioritization discussion. Consider engaging a neutral party to assist in planning and facilitating the meeting.

Bottom Line

Municipalities, with their myriad of departments and services, must manage competing goals and objectives. IT is a scarce commodity and allocating resources without a unifying business goal is particularly challenging. An IT Steering Committee is essential to effectively ensure that prioritization decisions are made transparently and equitably.

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