Success and Failure in eGovernment Projects

Design-Reality Gap Case Study No.4

A Single Personnel Information System for a Southern African Government

Case Study Author



The Office of the Civil Service (OCS) has central responsibility for employment of all public servants. It was the central coordinator for the application, but all individual ministries and departments would also participate in data entry and use.

Application Description

The application was an integrated personnel information system - consisting of a basic data entry/storage component and a management information system component - that would handle details of all public servants.

Application Drivers

Traditionally, personnel records for public servants were held in three places - OCS, the employee's parent ministry, and their operational department. This led to duplications, fragmentation and inconsistencies in records. Data was inaccurate and thus unreliable as a basis for decision-making. Data-gathering was subject to delays or worse when files were lost. The existing system was usable, but computerisation and simultaneous integration/rationalisation of personnel records was seen as a route to eradicating all these problems, by creating a single system that would provide accurate information to all in a timely and cost-efficient manner. All of this coincided with an external political environment that wanted to see more use of IT within the country, particularly within government, and by a positive (arguably unrealistically-positive) view by some senior officials of IT as an agent for change.


The three main stakeholders were OCS, the government's National IT Unit (NITU: which provided technical advice), and the IT firm which won the supply tender for the personnel information system. All government ministries - especially those ministry staff involved in personnel matters - were also stakeholders as, in a fairly direct sense, were all government employees since their details were to be recorded on the system.

Design-Reality Gap Analysis

Design-reality gap analysis compares the assumptions/requirements within the application design with the reality pertaining just before that design was implemented along seven 'ITPOSMO' dimensions:

Design-Reality Gap Changes During Implementation

During implementation, the new technology was introduced. In some ways, this helped narrow the design-reality gap on that dimension. In other ways, though, the gap increased because PCs were typically allocated in individual ministries on the basis of status rather than relation to the information system - they were put in the offices of senior staff rather than in places accessible by operational staff involved with the personnel information system. So most records management staff who were to undertake data input/update had no PCs; while more senior staff who had the PCs had no personnel data role. Overall, only limited progress was made in closing the gap between technology design and technology reality; bringing it down to around 6.

In a similar manner, the five-day training workshops helped deliver some skills to some staff but many staff put onto the workshops lacked the basic IT skills that were a workshop pre-requisite and/or found the training not relevant to the specifics of their personnel work. They gained little or nothing from their training. In all, the design-reality gap could be estimated to fall to about 6, taking the overall gap total to around 42.

Evaluation: Failure or Success?

Introduction of the integrated personnel information system has been largely unsuccessful, as might well be expected with a medium-large/42-score design-reality gap.

The system was implemented, but hardly used. More than three years after the system was finally introduced, personnel data was only being updated by OCS staff. After some initial attempts, staff in the ministries and departments reverted back to their manual personnel records. The new system did not impact their personnel decision making.

Learning: Identifying Causes of the Largely Unsuccessful Outcome

The dimensional gaps are arranged in descending order in the following table, which focuses on the situation during implementation:







Objectives & Values




Staffing & Skills


Management Systems & Structures


Other Resources


The relatively 'mechanical' issues of technology and skills did play a role in this failure; in particular exacerbated by the inability of the implementation process to lessen those gaps, as one might typically expect during implementation.

However, the key cause of failure is the cluster of gaps - on the information, processes, and objectives and values dimensions - that relate to the attempt to change so much of what the ministries were doing, when most senior staff in those ministries were unsympathetic to such changes.

Recommendations: Reducing Design-Reality Gaps

To reduce the risk of failure, e-government projects must reduce problematic design-reality gaps. This means either making the design more like current reality and/or making reality more like the design. Hindsight recommendations for improvements on this project fall into two main camps:

i. Generic gap closure recommendations

These are approaches to e-government projects that can help generally to reduce gaps on a number of dimensions:

ii. Specific gap closure recommendations

These are actions taken on e-government projects that can help specifically to reduce gaps on a particular dimension:

Action Recommendations

All of the above represent retrospective recommendations: ways in which the project could have been better implemented if it had recognised design-reality gaps earlier. What they suggest for the current project is that it tries to make alternative use of the IT base that has been installed. First, it should look to spread very simple applications, like email, as suggested in the scope comments. Then, via key 'hybridised' individuals in each ministry, it should take a more bottom-up approach led by suggestions from within the ministries about how to gradually computerise more of the personnel function. Having a single, integrated system may remain an ultimate goal but, being a design so different from existing reality, that goal will only be reached many years in the future.

Case Details

Author Data Sources/Role : Application User/Participant Role
Outcome : Largely Unsuccessful. Reform : eAdministration (managing process performance).
Sector : General Services (Public Administration).
Region : Southern Africa. Start Date : 1997. Submission Date : January 2003

Last updated on 19 October, 2008.
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