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Public sector panned over approach to IT projects

Westminster's approach to running large tech projects is like 'trying to avoid a car crash by looking in the rear-view mirror', according to a panel of chief civil servants and MPs
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

Westminster's approach to running large tech projects is akin to "trying to avoid a car crash by looking in the rear-view mirror", a panel of chief civil servants and MPs concluded on Thursday.

John Hemming, member of the select committee on the modernisation of the House of Commons, said reports into projects by government agencies and parliamentary committees are often little more than post-mortems.

"The problem [with these projects] is that you cannot find out that something has gone wrong until after it has happened, so you cannot correct it at the time," he told an event hosted by services company Steria in London on Thursday.

"It is like trying to avoid a car crash by looking in the rear-view mirror. We have got to create a situation where ministers have to provide and be provided with satisfactory information about what is going on."

It was a view echoed by Richard Bacon, a member of the parliamentary spending watchdog the Public Accounts Committee and a fierce critic of the £12.7bn programme to modernise NHS IT.

According to Bacon, the government needs to publicise the results of internal reviews of projects by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) so ministers are no longer able to sweep negative findings under the carpet, citing delays to £1.5bn-worth of farm payments caused by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) tech.

"What we need is more openness — the OGC was giving red light after red light to the RPA and the permanent secretary said: 'A red light does not mean stop, it just means there are things that need addressing'," he said.

"In the public sector you get this willingness to grind onwards towards the abyss and some projects go on long past their sell-by date."

Bacon argued that as much information on projects as possible should be published online so Whitehall could be held to account, saying: "Just stick it all on the internet."

He also called for the UK to follow the approach of the US, which compels public bodies to give status reports on key milestones during major IT projects.

There was also agreement among public-sector figures that political pressures should not be allowed to influence project timetables and technical decisions.

Bacon said: "It is also the speed at which ministers want results that is the problem: in the case of the RPA, it resulted in the choice to implement the dynamic hybrid system, the most complex system available, within the shortest available timetable.

"Senior officials in Defra and the RPA said that it would be a nightmare and they went ahead and created it anyway."

Barbara Moorhouse, director general of corporate resources for the Department for Transport, added that civil servants can be reluctant to stick their head above the parapet. "The public-sector objective is not to get into trouble and to just bumble along," she said.

"I know from my own personal experience that saying anything unpopular to a minister, even as a senior civil servant, is very difficult," Moorhouse added.

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