Why do we never learn and keep replicating failure?

There have been many successful public sector systems, some very very large like the original computerisation of PAYE in the 1980s. There is much excellent guidance on how to do IT properly. But the National Plan for IT failed for very similar reasons to HISS or the DSS Operational Strategy over two decades ago. Why do we never learn?

Earlier this year I was asked to update a paper presented five years ago, on why the public sector fails to learn from past successes, let alone mistakes, for publication in the Spring 2008 issue of “Transformation”, the magazine published by Capgemini and the National School of Government. It is part of the warm up to a major interview with John Suffolk on the challenges of public sector IT projects.

The points highlighted by the editor (his choice, not mine) spell out a simple message:

“There have been many studies into the causes of failed computer systems over the past 35 years. Much excellent guidance material has been produced, from the days of the Ministry of Technology to the latest guidance from the Office of Government Commerce …

Confusion and conflict over objectives and priorities and split responsibility for policy and implementation commonly mean that no-one knows what success looks like or is responsible for achieving it from conception to completion …

The main reason why such problems persist, long after they were first identified, is that those who plan clever policies using fashionable technologies are promoted to repeat their mistakes elsewhere, before they have time to learn …

Those facing global competition [i.e. in the Private Sector] can no longer afford to try to conceal problems, as opposed to earning reputations for acting fast to resolve them …

Government systems do not fail because they are larger and more complex than those of the private sector, nor is their size and complexity necessitated by most underlying applications …

Once a proposal has been said to have ministerial support it acquires a mystical status – to be justified and defended at almost any cost, until such time as a new minister can announce that “technologies have changed” and thus justify a new approach …

There have been many reports into why systems fail, especially in the public sector. There have been many fewer on why systems succeed …

The successful implementation of a change programme [in the private sector] is not only well rewarded but is one of the common routes to the top. In consequence those at the top [often] have personal experience of what is entailed – unlike most of those at the top of central government.”

The overall theme of the issue is on “Managing large-scale projects” and I strongly recommend downloading it and reading the other articles, especially the interview with John Suffolk.



Forgot Password?

No problem! Submit your e-mail address below. We'll send you an email containing your password.

Your password has been sent to: