Lessons Learned from Ghana’s 2017 Digitization Projects

lessons learned ghana tech projects sidney laud schandorf gharage

A cursory reading of the NPP’s manifesto will reveal that many well-executed projects will be required to deliver on its promises to Ghanaians. Whether it is digital addressing, a functional health insurance scheme, a reliable identity system or even stamping out corruption, well planned and executed projects are an important means. Last year, in an open letter to the President, I wrote at length about why I was convinced that the joint disciplines of business analysis and project/program/portfolio management will be important to this and any government’s success. I committed to writing a series of articles on the major projects of 2017 but on further reflection, I think we are better served by a reflection on lessons learned. In this piece, I discuss a few lessons that we can learn that will hopefully make 2018 a more successful year for projects.

 

Lesson 1: Going fast isn’t always the most important thing

President Nana Akufo-Addo, who I call The Speed Man, has again commented about how we can expect things to go at “supersonic speed” in 2018. A certain CIO would often say in troubled moments, “I worry.” If there is anything we learnt from 2017, it is that speed can sometimes be the enemy of progress. It is perhaps for this very reason that even the best kept roads have speed limits imposed. Maybe, we need some arms of government to hold up speed limit signs to ensure we do not suffer a fatal accident but that is a story for a different article.

Technology and maybe politics too have a way of creating the illusion that we can “leapfrog” process and somehow arrive at any end much quicker. What we fail to realise is that technology always operates within a cultural milieu that has taken a long while to form. Any truly lasting change to this culture is gradual and rarely sudden. When promises are made and projects are commissioned, it is important to ask if we are considered the true end – true, lasting change or we are considering the short-term end, ticking a box and winning the next election?

At the launch of the GhanaPostGPS system, it became quite clear that there was a big project planning problem. Having been in involved in projects for a while, I understand that politics has a way of trumping logic and in this case I suspect someone in government may not have listened to the vendor. The first version of the product to come to market was clearly not market-ready, no matter what Vokacom, Ghana Post, Ursula Ekuful, George Andah or any other person would have us believe. Speed, going fast, was so important that this premature child was snatched out of the womb while it was still being formed. If you doubt this, look at how much talk went on and how some people in government found it useful to denigrate the brilliant developer and project management community. Someone sped to a launch date and the result was catastrophic.

 

Lesson 2: Proper planning prevents piss poor performance

There is no better example than the Ghana Card. I recall the confidence (read hubris) with which a certain CEO proclaimed his ability to deliver the Ghana Card before the date that he had been tasked. I wore my prophetic garbs at this announcement and proclaimed with “Bempah certainty” that project failure was knocking at his door. Only a few weeks later, an LI was blamed as part of the reason for which the nation-wide issuance had to be deferred until 2018. It is logical to ask if this CEO and his project team did not know that the said legislation had to be passed? Did they not know how much time it needed to mature? For anyone who heard the interview on Citi FM, it appeared from his submission that every “t” had been crossed and “i” dotted. I put it to this CEO that what was most important to him was the fanfare of printing a card for the President and resting in his “akpasa” (lazy chair) and feeling good about himself. Clearly when he and the President claimed to have “delivered” the Ghana Card they might have been talking about the President’s card and not that for the Koko King vendor from whom I get my morning Hausa “koko.” Obviously some planning occurred but when you are in a “supersonic” hurry you do yourself the disservice of not taking enough time to reflect on and properly plan things. This leads to the next two lessons which I suggest are best discussed together.

 

Lesson 3: A shared definition of success is important.

Lesson 4: Fanfare and lavish launches are not the stuff that project success is made up of.

When Ken Attafuah sang his own paean like the lizard on the iroko tree in Chinua Achebe’s “Things fall apart,” he had obviously fallen prey to the idea that fanfare and lavish launches define project success. Even more importantly, he appears to have a certain idea of “delivered” that is different from what I perceive as delivered. In fact that same problem seems to beleaguer this entire government, particularly our Vice President, Dr M. Bawumia. He, like our president, has been quite assertive about “delivering” a digital addressing system like none other on this planet.

Is a KVIP “delivered” if the underlying problem of open defecation and the attendant health risks still obtain in a community? More generally, is a thing delivered because it is launched? This naturally leads to a number of discussions, two of which I will focus on. Success, even success in life, means different things to different people. On multiple stakeholder projects like government ones, there are different interests. To the political party, ticking a box that provides them currency for the next election may be more important than solving the underlying problem of say open defecation. To a president or vice president, the goal may be similar or different. To an NGO providing funds, the real concern may be reversing open defecation for the well-being of the community.

Consequently, it should be very clear from the outset what the definition of success is. Is it simply delivering one card or piece of software or it is holding people responsible for its use until the value expected accrues to the country? If the players viewed things this way, it is only obvious that all the chicks that were being counted wouldn’t be. Ika Lavagnon, professor of project management at the University of Ottawa, Canada, agrees with other scholars that an emphasis on project management success (example software completion) can blind us into thinking that a project is successful. That the project management process is successful is no indication that the project has itself yielded the desired outcomes (project success).
In 2018, our focus should move from ticking boxes to considering outcomes. Discerning readers will realise the government cannot pat itself on the back because the proof of its success will be in adoption and value. Sure they can celebrate launches but it would be done with the recognition that the real work isn’t completed but has only began.

 

Lesson 5: Stakeholder engagement at every stage is crucial

GhanaPost GPS is a great example of stakeholder engagement and project communications gone very wrong. It is still a mystery how there was such inconsistency between Vokacom, Ghana Post and the Ministers of Communications and Information on “offline mode.” If these crucial stakeholders could not get together and get their “rap” consistent, I wonder who in the public was engaged for this project. A cursory look at the response of “objective” developers on Twitter will tell you some of the most seasoned developers were not contacted and a few took their time to point out flaws which were either quickly corrected, denied or both.
I have no intent to bash GhanaPost GPS; it makes for good learning. When the application made the assumption that most people had access to Internet and smartphones to generate their own addresses was that not being too presumptuous? When we found that the application generated multiple addresses for the same plot were we again being, “too know or typical pull him down (PhD)” Ghanaians as the minister of communications called us? Was it not an admission of an egregious error when a certain deputy minister said they were (now) going to consult with other governmental institutions to align this effort with some other (similar) existing initiatives?

GhanaPostGPS demonstrates the first point: going fast isn’t always the most important thing. It would be okay if it only demonstrated this. It demonstrates every other point made up to this point and something more: that enough stakeholder consultation wasn’t carried out. Which sections of the public were consulted, which were used as part of usability testing? Which of their feedback was integrated into the design approach to ensure the system would meet a wider set of needs?

 

Lesson 6: What we learn from history is we never learn from history

History is a word that tends to send us thinking decades, centuries or even millennia ago but it is important to realise five minutes ago is history and so was 2017. As one wiser than I am has said, “what we learn from history is that we never learn from history.” Because we are creatures of habit, governments included, we tend not to learn from projects even within our own government. What did GhanaPost GPS for instance learn from the paperless port project or what lessons did the Ghana Card share with Ghana Post GPS? If we look at projects this way, it is possible that with each project we will make new mistakes which is far more acceptable than repeating the same mistakes over and over again. I am hoping that a comprehensive documentation of lessons learned from 2017’s projects has been compiled and they will inform the 2018 project planning processes.

 

The way forward:

This article can be dismissed as a gripe. In order to dismiss this claim, I offer a few suggestions:

  • Let’s slow down.

Supersonic speed may thrill, even help win the next election but eventually it can kill us. Many of the things being attempted by this government are not necessarily new or even novel but because successive governments have not taken the time to adequately ground them and focus on long-term success, the citizen’s tax money pays for the same things over and over again.

  • Let’s take our time to plan.

Planning for national projects is a consultative process that takes time. It is imperative that the right people are brought together, the right questions asked and the right solutions fashioned. These things take time. The solution isn’t always a new thing but sometimes extending an older solution. These things emerge when we assign sufficient time to thinking through and planning the project.

  • Let’s use seasoned professionals and build our execution capacity

There are many seasoned project, program and portfolio management professionals whose services must be sought to help plan and deliver these projects for lasting results. Even more importantly bodies like the Project Management Institute, Ghana chapter must be engaged to help fashion and refine legislation that supports the Procurement Act to help the nation derive better value from projects. The procurement act alone is insufficient. We must also find ways to build our capacity to deliver on projects as our growth is inextricably hinged on this.

  • Let us communicate honestly

Our leaders must value the importance of honest communication even if it puts their political ambitions at risk. This is obviously wishful thinking but I am hoping that we can arrive at the point where the wellbeing of Ghana matters more than the wellbeing of a party or its faithful.

 

Conclusion

An important component to building the Ghana we want is projects, programmes and portfolios. If we expect better results in 2018 than we did in the years before, a change in government is inadequate. A change in how we act, individually and collectively, is important. A change in how we define and execute our projects, is also crucial. It is hoped that by learning from some of these lessons, we can execute better projects in 2018 and beyond.

 

Editor’s Note

Two days to publishing this article, I found out regrettably that the author had passed away in a motor accident; little wonder I had not received a reply to an email I sent to him on Wednesday.

Even though I never met Sidney physically, the few interactions we had online presented his posture of a patriotic, forward-looking Ghanaian. I looked forward to meeting him soon. I am careful to share his ‘last thoughts’ on the tech projects from last year, but even more reflective as I think on how much impact we can make as long as we live.

This article was originally written in January 2018 and revised 2 weeks ago. My condolences to friends and family. Rest in peace, Sidney Laud Sai Schandorf.

 

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