Joe Harley, the Chief Information Officer at the Department for Work and Pensions, says that "only 30%" of technology-based projects and programmes are a success - at a time when taxes are funding a £14bn spend annually on public sector IT, equivalent to 7,000 new primary schools or 75 hospitals a year.
The low success rate will do little to build confidence in two of the government's biggest and riskiest IT programmes: the £5.3bn ID cards scheme and the NHS's £12.4bn National Programme for IT.
Harley is a member of the government's CIO Council. At the Department for Work and Pensions he runs a £3bn modernisation programme and is responsible for more than 110,000 desktops. The DWP is the largest civil department of state. The House of Commons' Work and Pensions Committee published a report on the DWP's management of IT on 7 July 2004. Before becoming a civil servant he was CIO at ICI Paints and before that Global IT Vice President at BP.
He gave the figures in a keynote address at the Government UK IT Summit at the Victoria Park Plaza hotel in London on 15 May 2007. Harley said that, for the government's IT spend of £14bn, "7,000 primary schools every year could be constructed", about 600,000 nurses could be employed or more than three million state pensions paid.
"Today only 30% we estimate of our projects and programmes are successful," said Harley. Why shouldn't it be 90% successful?"
He said that government CIOs and suppliers have signed up to meeting a series of targets including an increase of the success rate of projects and programmes to 90% by 2010/11.
He added: "It's not sustainable for us as a government to continue to spend at these levels. We need to up the quality of what we do at a reduced cost of doing so. The first step is a conversation for radical change and we have had that conversation with our key suppliers across government. Again it's about improving performance in projects and programmes and our day to day services as well as our procurement processes."
Projects fail for a variety of reasons but sometimes have predictable weaknesses such as inadequate requirements, he said. Even if a project or programme is three months late it's doubtful "you could call this a success".
One government target is to cut "overall IT spend" which stands at £14bn a year by about 20%, particularly by reducing the cost of desktops by 40%.
Some departments spend about £2,400 per desktop machine and others only spend only £700 per desktop, he said. The departments with the higher spend on desktops would examine for example whether they need all their software licences, and whether they could run much of their PC software on servers.
"The taxpayer is also one of our customers of course. We want to achieve a 20% overall reduction in IT spend in government."
He added: "We feel there are big improvements to be made in our desktop area. So we are looking for a 40% reduction in the unit costs of that...All of industry and government are signed up for the targets I have talked about. Cost reduction is underway, in ten departments initially, focusing on the desktop which we think is a big opportunity. Ideas from project strands and reliable delivery strands will influence 12 mission-critical programmes for the government. Improvements will be made."
But there were mixed messages at the conference. Minister Stephen Timms, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who is working on the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review - which sets the budget allocations for departments from 2008 to 2011 - was upbeat about government IT.
He said technological development will open up "huge opportunities" for public services. He wants a great deal more technology-enabled transformations in public services over the next few years.
And acknowledging none of the criticisms of the all-party Public Accounts Committee over the NHS's National Programme for IT, Timms spoke about the scale of the scheme as "heroic".
There will a separate blog entry on the speech by Stephen Timms.