Unpacking complexities of mega-scale public sector information technology projects: An ecosystem perspective


  • Isabelle Fagnot Audencia Business School
  • Chen Ye Purdue University Northwest, Indiana
  • Kevin Desouza Queensland University of Technology


Information technology, public sector, mega-scale projects, project failure, ecosystem


Mega-scale information technology (IT) projects in the public sector are significant undertakings operating within an ecosystem of stakeholders, resources, and constraints. The track record of these projects is abysmal. Employing an ecosystems lens, we study three failed mega-scale public sector IT projects: the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Virtual Case File (VCF), the U.S.federal government’s HealthCare.gov project, and Great Britain’s National Programme for IT (NPfIT). A forensic analysis of these projects was conducted employing the Qualitative Media Analysis (QMA) methodology. The findings suggest several stakeholders in a public IT project assume roles analogous to different types of species in an ecosystem, with the public agency sponsoring the project as the keystone species. Specifically, the findings show that the public agency is susceptible to failure in hiring key personnel with proper knowledge and experience, and failure in responding to early signals alerting the impending implosion of the project ecosystem. In addition, flawed relationships between the public agency and contractors, and flawed relationship between the legislature and the public agency also contributed significantly to project failure.


The Washington Post (2013, November 2). A timeline of the affordable care act. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/a-timeline-of-the-affordable-care-act/2013/11/02/76b6f9b6-43f9-11e3-a751-f032898f2dbc_story.html

Aigner-Treworgy, A. (2013, November 15). Engineers: HealthCare.gov better, but initial problems persist. Retrieved October 29, 2014, from http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/15/politics/obamacare-engineers/

Allison, B. (2013, October 9). Good enough for government work? The contractors building Obamacare. Retrieved from http://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2013/10/09/aca-contractors

Altheide, D. L. (1996). Qualitative media analysis: Qualitative research method series. (Vol. 38). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc.

Associated Press. (2001, June 20). FBI got conflicting advice on what to save. Retrieved from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2001-05-15-mcveigh-fbi.htm

Auerbach, D. (2013, December 2). Healthcare.gov: No Longer a Total Disaster! Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/bitwise/2013/12/healthcare_gov_nov_30_deadline_the_tech_surge_is_working.html

Big Bang Boom. (2014). Retrieved March 2, 2016, from The Standish Group International website: https://www.standishgroup.com/sample_research_files/BigBangBoom.pdf

Bozeman, B. (2002). Public-value failure: When efficient markets may not do. Public administration review, 145-161.

Bozeman, B., & Bretschneider, S. (1986). Public management information systems: Theory and prescription. Public Administration Review, 475-487.

Brennan, P. (2013). 137,000 People Have Selected Plans on HealthCare.gov, Most of Them Can’t Get Subsidies. Retrieved from http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/366070/undefined

Briscoe, G. (2010). Complex Adaptive Digital EcoSystems, Proceedings of the International Conference on Management of Emergent Digital EcoSystems, 39-46.

Carpenter, S. R., Cole, J. J., Pace, M. L., Batt, R., Brock, W. A., Cline, T., & Weidel, B. (2011). Early warnings of regime shifts: a whole-ecosystem experiment. Science, 332(6033), 1079-1082.

CBS News Staff (2001). Former agents hit FBI on McVeigh was evidence that could have helped McVeigh ignored by FBI? [Television series episode]. In 60 MINUTES. New York City: CBS. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/former-agents-hit-fbi-on-mcveigh/

CBS News Staff (2013). Obamacare: Memo reveals health care adviser warned W.H. was losing control 3 years ago. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/obamacare-memo-reveals-health-care-adviser-warned-wh-was-losing-control-3-years-ago/

CNN Poll (2013). CNN Poll: Obama approval falls amid controversies. Retrieved from http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2013/06/17/cnn-poll-obama-approval-falls-amid-controversies/

Collins, T. (2003). How the national programme came to be the health service’s riskiest IT project. Computer Weekly, 9/16/2003, 20-24.

Campion-Awwad, O., Hayton, A., Smith, L. and Vuaran, M. (2014). The National Programme for IT in the NHS: A Case History. MPhil Public Policy, University of Cambridge.

Congressional Budget Office. (2014). Labor Market Effects of the Affordable Care Act: Updated Estimates. Retrieved from http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/45010-breakout-AppendixC.pdf

D’Andrea, A., Ferri, F., Grifoni, P., & Guzzo, T. (2009). Analysing the evolution of a Digital Organization Eco-Systems (DOES), Proceedings of the International Conference on Management of Emergent Digital EcoSystems, 8-15.

DeAngelis, D. L. (1980). Energy flow, nutrient cycling, and ecosystem resilience. Ecology, 764-771.

Depilles, L. (2013, October 16). Meet CGI Federal, the company behind the botched launch of HealthCare.gov. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/10/16/meet-cgi-federal-the-company-behind-the-botched-launch-of-healthcare-gov/

Dille, T., & Söderlund, J. (2011). Managing inter-institutional projects: The significance of isochronism, timing norms and temporal misfits. International Journal of Project Management, 29, 480-490.

Dille, T., & Söderlund, J. (2013). Managing temporal misfits in institutional environments: A study of critical incidents in a complex public project. International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, 6(3), 552-575.

Dunham, W. (2010, March 22). Timeline: Milestones in Obama's quest for healthcare reform. REUTERS. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/03/22/us-usa-healthcare-timeline-idUSTRE62L0JA20100322

Eilperin, J. (2014, January 14). QSSI to stay on as HealthCare.gov’s general contractor. Retrieved October 29, 2014, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2014/01/14/qssi-to-stay-on-as-healthcare-govs-general-contractor/

Engwall, M. (2003). No project is an island: linking projects to history and context. Research Policy (32)5, 789–808.

Executive Office of the President, Office of Management & Budget (2015). Fiscal Year 2016 Budget of the U.S. Government (paper). United States Government Printing Office.

Flyvbjerg, B. (2005). Design by deception: The politics of megaproject approval. Harvard Design Magazine, 22, 50-59. Retrieved from http://flyvbjerg.plan.aau.dk/HARVARDDESIGN63PRINT.pdf

Flyvbjerg, B. (2009). Survival of the unfittest: why the worst infrastructure gets built – and what we can do about it. Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 25(3), 344-367. doi: 10.1093/oxrep/grp024

Flyvbjerg, B., Budzier A. (2009). Why your IT project may be riskier than you think. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from


Flyvbjerg, B., Bruzelius, N., & Rothengatter, W. (2003). Megaprojects and risk: An anatomy of ambition. Cambridge University Press.

Galewitz, P. (2014, May 1). Healthcare.gov Finished Strong Despite Rocky Start, Enrollment Data Show. Retrieved from http://kaiserhealthnews.org/news/healthcare-gov-finished-strong-despite-rocky-start-enrollment-data-show/

Gauld, R. (2007). Public sector information system project failures: Lessons from a New Zealand hospital organization. Government information quarterly, 24(1), 102-114.

Grabher, G. (2002). The project ecology of advertising: Tasks, talents and teams. Regional Studies, 36(3), 245-262. doi: 10.1080/0034340022012205

Gold, H. (2014, February 5). Democrats hit media for ACA CBO coverage. Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/blogs/media/2014/02/democrats-hit-media-for-aca-cbo-coverage-182778.html

Hendy, J., Reeves, B.C., Fulop. N., Hutchings, A. and Masseria, C. (2005). Challenges to implementing the national programme for information technology (NPfIT): a qualitative study. British Medical Journal, 331 (7512), 331-336.

Hensgen, T., Desouza, K. C., & Kraft, G. D. (2003). Games, signal detection, and processing in the context of crisis management. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 11(2), 67-77.

House Hearing, 108 Congress (2004). Retrieved from


Janssen, M., van der Voort, H., & van Veenstra, A. F. (2015). Failure of large transformation projects from the viewpoint of complex adaptive systems: Management principles for dealing with project dynamics. Information Systems Frontiers, 17(1), 15-29.

Johns, J., & Wolf, B. (2013, October 30). First on CNN: Obama administration warned about healthcare website. CNN Politics. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/29/politics/obamacare-warning/

Kadefors, A. (1995). Institutions in building projects: implications for flexibility and change. Scandinavian Journal of Management 11(4), 395–408.

Karhu, K., Botero, A., Vihavainen, S., Tang, T., & Hämäläinen, M. (2009). A Digital Ecosystem for Boosting User-Driven Service Business, Proceedings of the International Conference on Management of Emergent Digital EcoSystems, 246-253.

Kirschvink, J. L. (2000). Earthquake prediction by animals: Evolution and sensory perception. Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 90(2), 312-323.

Lamb, R., King, J. L., & Kling, R. (2003). Informational environments: Organizational contexts of online information use. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 54(2), 97-114.

Li, W., Badr, Y., & Biennier, F. (2012, October). Digital ecosystems: challenges and prospects. In Proceedings of the International Conference on Management of Emergent Digital EcoSystems (117-122). ACM.

Mazmanian, A. (2014, February 27). Behind the scenes at the HealthCare.gov tech surge. Retrieved from The Business of Federal Technology website: http://fcw.com/articles/2014/02/27/healthcaredotgov-brill-recap.aspx

Moore, J.F. (1996). The Death of Competition: Leadership & Strategy in the Age of Business Ecosystems. New York, Harper Business

Moore, J.F. (1993). Predators and Prey: A New Ecology of Competition. Retrieved from http://blogs.harvard.edu/jim/files/2010/04/Predators-and-Prey.pdf

Morgan, D., & Hunter, C. (2013, October 30). Timeline: U.S. healthcare law's technology breakdown (W. Dunham, Ed.). Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/30/us-usa-healthcare-delays-idUSBRE99T1C920131030

Murray, C. (2013, November 4). G4S and Serco woes deepen with British fraud investigation. Retrieved October 29, 2014, from http://uk.reuters.com/article/2013/11/04/us-g4s-tagging-idUKBRE9A30OV20131104

Nather, D. (2014, February 28). How the Clinton White House bungled health care reform. POLITICO, Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/story/2014/02/bill-hillary-clinton-health-care-reform-104109.html

National Audit Office. The National Programme for IT in the NHS: Progress since 2006. London: National Audit Office, The Stationery Office, 16 May 2006. Available from: www.nao.org.uk/pn/07-08/0708484.htm

Newell, S., Goussevskaia, A., Swan, J., Bresnen, M., & Obembe, A. (2008). Interdependencies in complex project ecologies: The case of biomedical innovation. Long Range Planning, 41(1), 33-54.

New York Times News Service. (1997, January 31). FBI lab assailed in bomb probe Okla. blast evidence possibly mishandled. Retrieved from http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1997-01-31/news/1997031018_1_city-bombing-oklahoma-city-inspector-general

Ng, A., & Loosemore, M. (2007). Risk allocation in the private provision of public infrastructure. International Journal of Project Management, 25(1), 66-76.

Nyström, M., Folke, C., & Moberg, F. (2000). Coral reef disturbance and resilience in a human-dominated environment. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 15(10), 413-417.

Pear (2009). Doctors’ Group Opposes Public Insurance Plan. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/11/us/politics/11health.html?_r=0

Pinto, J. K. (2013). Lies, damned lies, and project plans: recurring human errors that can ruin the project planning process. Business Horizons, 56(5), 643-653.

Pinto, J.K, & Slevin, D. P. (2006). Organizational governance and project success: lessons from Boston’s Big Dig. In Concept Symposium 2006: Principles of governance for major investment projects. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Purao, S., & Desouza, K. (2010). Large IT projects as interventions in digital ecosystems. In Proceedings of the International Conference on Management of Emergent Digital EcoSystems (9-16). ACM.

Purao, S., Desouza, K. C., & Becker, J. (2012). Investigating Failures in Large-Scale Public Sector Projects with Sentiment Analysis. e-Service Journal, 8(2), 84-105.

Rocheleau, B., & Wu, L. (2002). Public versus private information systems do they differ in important ways? A review and empirical test. The American Review of Public Administration, 32(4), 379-397.

Rong, K. & Shi, Y. (2009). Constructing Business Ecosystem from Firm Perspective: Cases in High-tech Industry, Proceedings of the International Conference on Management of Emergent Digital EcoSystems, 417-421.

Sessions, R. (2008). Simple Architectures for Complex Enterprises. Redmond, Washington: Microsoft Press.

Smith, M., Steinhauser, P., Bohn, K., Acosta, J., Aigner-Treworgy, A., Todd, B., & McConnell, D. (2013, October 22). Obama: No 'sugarcoating' problems with health website. Retrieved October 29, 2014, from http://edition.cnn.com/2013/10/21/politics/obamacare-problems/

State Health Insurance Marketplace Types (2013, May 28). Retrieved from The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation website: http://kff.org/health-reform/state-indicator/state-health-insurance-marketplace-types/

Stover, C. F. (1964). Government Contract System as a Problem in Public Policy. Geo. Wash. L. Rev., 32, 701.

Syal, R. (2013, September 17). Abandoned NHS IT system has cost £10bn so far. Retrieved from the guardian website: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/sep/18/nhs-records-system-10bn

The White House, Office of Administration. (2014).Office of the chief information officer (OCIO). Retrieved from website: http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/oa/divisions/ocio

Thibodeau, P. (2013). Healthcare. gov website ‘didn’t have a chance in hell’. Computerworld> Healthcare IT.

Van Marrewijk, A. (2007). Managing project culture: The case of Environ Megaproject. International Journal of project management, 25(3), 290-299.

Walker, B., Holling, C. S., Carpenter, S. R., & Kinzig, A. (2004). Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social--ecological systems. Ecology and Society, 9(2), 5.

Webster, P. C. (2012, November 29). After all the time and money invested, will e-health ever deliver on its promise? The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/rob-magazine/after-all-the-time-and-money-invested-will-e-health-ever-deliver-on-its-promise/article5796658/

Yang, J. L. (2013, October 25). QSSI, contractor chosen to fix HealthCare.gov, faced questions from lawmakers last year. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/contractor-chosen-to-fix-healthcaregov-faced-questions-from-lawmakers-last-year/2013/10/25/fe27e8ee-3da3-11e3-b6a9-da62c264f40e_story.html

Yin, R. (1989). Case study research: Design and methods. (3rd ed., Vol. 5). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.hampp-ejournals.de/hampp-verlag-services/get?file=/frei/ZfP_1_2012_93

Yuttapongsontorn, N., Desouza, K. C., & Braganza, A. (2008). Complexities of large-scale technology project failure: A forensic analysis of the Seattle popular monorail authority. Public Performance & Management Review, 31(3), 443-478.

Yourdon, E. (2004). Death march. (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hal.

U.S. Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Requesters. (2013). Patient protection and the affordable care act: Status of CMS efforts to establish federally facilitated health insurance exchange (Report No. GAO-13-601). Retrieved from Government Accountability Office website: http://www.gao.gov/assets/660/655291.pdf

U.S. Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Requesters, (2014). Ineffective Planning and Oversight Practices Underscore the Need for Improved Contract Management (Report No. GAO-14-694). Retrieved from Government Accountability Office website: http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/665179.pdf



How to Cite

Fagnot, I., Ye, C., & Desouza, K. (2018). Unpacking complexities of mega-scale public sector information technology projects: An ecosystem perspective. Systèmes d’Information Et Management (French Journal of Management Information Systems), 23(2). Retrieved from https://revuesim.org/index.php/sim/article/view/782



Empirical research