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The importance of good specs

The failure of the £450m IT project at the Child Support Agency can be traced back to a fundamental problem that plagues many IT projects: bad specs

Today, Alan Johnson -- the work and pensions secretary -- is to be grilled by a select committee on why a $450m IT project at the Child Support Agency still doesn't work, a year and a half after it was 'implemented'. He's already handed the committee the head of the CSA's chief executive, but that's scant comfort for the thousands of single parents still waiting for their money with no resolution in sight.

This is just one among a string of high-profile failed IT projects in the public sector, and one more black eye for EDS, the company charged with implementing the project. Even the recovery plan that EDS drew up to restore the computer system to order missed its targets and there is now no date for having all old cases on the new computer system.

It is a fiasco of the highest order, to be sure. But EDS does not appear to be the only party at fault; the Department for Work and Pensions was, we are told, unclear about its specifications from the outset, and then kept changing these unclear specifications throughout the development phase.

However badly technology failed the CSA, it did so because of a failure to crystallise the vague aspirations of the people who would use the systems, and then to communicate solid designs to the people who were to build them. It is, of course, an age old problem. George Bernard Shaw noticed that the English and the Americans have enough trouble talking to each other even with a common language. What chance do techies and non-techies have with, essentially, no common tongue?

In the world of IT, it all comes down of course to the importance of good specs, which is something that non-techies are notoriously bad at. Good specs are the essence of a successful relationship, and it really should not be that hard: if it can't be written down as a simple rule, it should not be accepted.

In the case of the CSA and EDS, poor specs should have been identified as a problem right at the beginning. That the CSA couldn't understand specifications is a scandal -- but so is EDS' failure to refuse to do the work until the design was completed correctly. These people couldn't collaborate to design and build a £500 garden shed, let alone a half-billion pound IT system.

The select committee must find out why both parties failed in their jobs. We suggest an old journalistic formula: follow the money. Meanwhile, let this failure be an abject lesson to anyone involved in IT projects: if you don't have good specs, you'll be working blind.