Government must raise the bar in IT project management

Eugene Lacey: The government has an appalling record of mismanagement of major IT projects across more or less all major spending departments. It must drive a harder bargain with vendors

A couple of weeks ago, just before the Commons closed for its long summer recess and the MPs prepared to head back to their constituencies or their friends' villas in Tuscany, an official report crept out saying that the government was to write off a failed IT project for the criminal justice system at the cost of more than £300 million.

Sneaking it out at the end of the session left little scope for questions in the House -- not that there necessarily would have been any. The government has got away with bigger IT cock-ups than this one already -- with the total bill for failed IT projects running somewhere north of £2.5bn.

All IT failures are of course regrettable -- but the prosecution service is in disarray, with papers routinely going missing and cases collapsing as administration systems fail both lawyers and police, to the widely reported irritation of leading judges. The system desperately needs modernisation -- which makes this failure all the more regrettable.

It is important to note, however, that failure to deliver on major IT projects is by no means something that the government has a monopoly on. The private sector has its fair share of IT millennium domes too.

If anything, tendering and procurement skills are in greater abundance in the public than the private sector. Knee-jerk reactions to this latest failure might tend towards bringing in more private IT consultants to run whole departmental IT infrastructures, or to manage large IT deployments. The trouble with this analysis is that it fails to take account of the fact that plenty of major IT vendors were/are already involved in the failing projects. They will of course say that the failure was entirely due to lack of direction from government departments, moving goal posts, unclear requirements, lack of proper budgeting, etc. Well they would say that wouldn't they?

The point is, the government is responsible for delivering IT projects on time and on budget. Why is it that a major engineering project -- such as the channel tunnel, or the millennium dome -- receives massive public scrutiny from all quarters, with possibly several questions being asked in the House of Commons, and yet IT failures can routinely happen and nobody seems to care.

IT project planning needs a higher priority from government. It has been estimated that the National Health Service alone needs £1bn of expenditure to modernise its IT infrastructure. If the taxpayer is to be kept onside by a government wishing to garner wide support for increased expenditure on health, it must demonstrate that it can manage the modernisation well, keep vendors to their targets, and deliver value for money. IT spending is perhaps the key theatre of debate for the 'it's not about the money' / 'it is about the money' arguments in the run up to the next general election.

For those that are dependent on government departments and are therefore keenest to see real improvements, there are some reasons to be hopeful. Many local authorities have demonstrated great vision and leadership in modernising their infrastructures. Tower Hamlets is rolling out a comprehensive CRM platform for its residents -- largely funded by greater efficiencies in the administration of car parking permits.

Just this week we've seen Lewisham Council is roll out a Web site with avatars to guide residents through services, and ZDNet UK has reported on a new initiative in Bradford's hospitals to enable nurses to order supplies directly from the ward using PDAs -- cutting the notorious NHS paper trail in that trust.

It's when we go up the scale to the kind of systems needed to efficiently run national agencies -- such as the Inland Revenue or the Crown Prosecution Service -- that we run into problems. The answer is for top civil servants and ministers to get more involved. The best lessons can be learnt from best practice in local government, where the successful authorities are deeply engaged with the modernisation projects. This is what characterises the successful projects -- the executive involvement, the determination to understand the technology, what it can do and what it can't do, and above all the refusal to abdicate responsibility to consultants and vendors.

The government must get value from the extra billions it is putting into key agencies. IT is the place to start. That is where the productivity gains and the efficiencies are to be had. The deployment of better systems also acts as a catalyst to expose working practices that need to be scrapped or reformed.

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