Failed government IT projects occur with alarming frequency. In some respects, these failures share much in common with botched private sector initiatives. For example, failures in both environments are primarily a function of poor management rather than bad technology. Still, there are important differences between government and business projects, particularly in areas related to procurement, needs definition, project oversight, and accountability.
Philip Virgo, Secretary General of EURIM, a UK political advisory body, has written a lucid and insightful article (page 5) describing the dynamics that cause government projects to tank. Here are Philip's six reasons that government IT projects fail:
- Analysis of business needs, missing or wrong: failure to undertake a proper needs analysis. Failure to consult those in the front line of delivery, or in receipt of services, is endemic among those planning new policy initiatives or changes to existing systems.
- Needs change before implementation: the churn of ministers and political priorities is significantly faster than that of technology. It has been suggested that suppliers commonly bid low on the original specification to get the opportunity to make profits on the subsequent changes.
- Over-ambition: about what is achievable in practice, given the people, time and budgets available....
- Delay: particularly in agreeing priorities between conflicting objectives, leading to delay in planning and procurement....
- Lack of top customer management involvement: and lack of high-level skills, training or experience in planning, procurement or implementation. This lack of training and experience on the part of the customer causes and compounds the previous four problems....
- Supplier project or team management: usually because the ‘B’ team is trying to salvage an already doomed system, after the ‘A’ team has moved on to the next bid.
Government projects have so many problems, according to Philip, because "accountability structures" separate project requirements and goals from the real needs of end-user constituencies. As he says, "shifting political priorities, with neither consultation with the users nor consideration of the practicality of the consequent ‘ministerial’ demands for change" cause these projects to flame out.
If the root of government IT failure lies deep in the structure and relationship between political masters and humble IT servants, then spectacular public sector meltdowns are here to stay.
What's your view of government IT projects and politics? Leave a comment with your perspective.