£18bn Government IT scandal - 3 pages in The Times today

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On its front page today - and in a two-page spread inside - The Times has published a joint Times and Computer Weekly investigation on government IT including an opinion piece from us.

The articles refer to IT-based projects, programmes and contracts which have exceeded the original announced costs by more than £18bn.

MPs are fed up with failures of some large government IT-based projects and programmes - as are the government IT professionals, civil and public servants, and contractors who are achieving success on very limited budgets and find their work is overshadowed by the project Chimeras which have unrealistic time-frames and budgets.

The opinion and the analysis in The Times make it clear that we're not attacking government IT people but the way projects are approved without enough Parliamentary or external challenge to assumptions.

The opinion says: "None of the problems is the fault of thousands of civil and public servants and contractors who work in information technology for government and keep its uniquely complex machinery running smoothly..."

The analysis says that the many successes in government IT, including the efficient online system used by thousands to renew their car tax, are overshadowed by the many calamities.

Some of the reactions to the articles in The Times Online were informed. I was struck by one which related that a minister in 2002, Paul Boateng, had said that the monies spent on a project had not been wasted. This, it seems, is government's automated response: there is no such thing as a failure, only a success which has yet to prove itself.

The creative use of English is regarded in ministerial offices as an art-form. Words can be interpreted to mean almost anything. A minister could announce "night is day" if he has a private briefing saying the statement is justified because there is day-light all the time except when your side of the earth is in the wrong position to receive it.

These are some of the reactions in The Times to its joint investigation with Computer Weekly:

I have pursued the complete lack of control and waste of our money since Oct 2002 through my M.P. Nick Gibb without success. I was dismayed by one letter I received from the then minister Paul Boateng [2nd Dec 2002] in which it concluded that monies were not wasted - we had the equipment.

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MPs know nothing about programming, so how can they possibly scruntinise costs and time frames when they have no knowledge of what is involved? Government needs to employ consultants from the big IT firms to work for them - and base their bonuses on the work being completed on time and on budget.

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Clueless comments.You do not need to be a programmer to ask the right questions! The government DID employ consultants from the big IT firms (instead of going for parliamentary scrutiny). Funnily enough big IT firms have something of a vested interest in these schemes going ahead.

 

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"Lessons have been learnt" Well, obviously not. I've worked in the IT industry for far too long & I've yet to be in the initiation stages of a project where the senior management have agreed (or even thought) to look at previous projects to see what went wrong, before starting on the new project.

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The reason is the state is spending other people's money and the tendering rules mean only "the usual suspects" can bid.

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More could be achieved by refusing to give new contracts to the large companies in charge of these fiascos. At the moment failure is rewarded by a continuing income stream - hence the huge over-runs. Over-ambition is not the problem

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The problem would seem to be age old. As the size of the project increases, so does the complexity, and the focus is lost. Spend less time worrying about making the whole thing work, and approve and develop well defined systems that can be put together like Lego later on

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The issue is really one of inappropriate escalation of commitment. The causes are (i) avoiding loss of face, (ii) looking for confirming evidence to justify a previously-taken decision, (iii)and risk taking in the domain of losses. Cure is to rotate the person responsible for continuation decisions

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No, it is not "overoptimism". It is incompetence. Ministers want to wave a wand and have a centralised solution to everything. It never works. Computer solutions are exponentially more likely to collapse as size increases arithmetically. The result is flabware, chaos and waste by the billion.

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The article mentions successful IT projects... perhaps contracts should be passed on to those companies who did do well?

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What really hurts those of us in the rest of the IT industry is that these contracts virtually shut out the smaller, more innovative IT companies in favour of a few, big players. That said, they have brilliant sales people ...

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Basic outsourcing costs a huge amount. I was working a govt agency in Nottingham. Every time we wanted to move a computer, scanner, printer (even a few feet) we had to call the IT company. It cost a minimum £100 call out charge. Govt contracts with private companies should be in the public domain

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Shrink the state, and the IT waste will follow

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Links:

Secret deals that are costing the taxpayer billions - The Times

£18bn scandal as Whitehall's IT projects spin out of control - The Times

Computer Weekly Comment in The Times - how to break the cycle of IT failure

Government It Projects will cost £18bn more than expected - Computer Weekly

E-Government projects over by £18bn - Publicservice.co.uk

£18bn over budget - Procurement Blog    

3 Comments

  • I could name about 6 key people responsible for the current IT systems mess,these people have been telling ministers what they want to hear not how things really are.Not enough scrutiny has been allowed by lay people!!!!! some of whom have been front line users of these IT systems.The Key players at the DOH/SHA know who they are,and I hope they will be held to account by the public accounts committee.

  • nice to see the mainstream media catching up with an issue that has been around for many years but still remained below their radar, even when told about it.

    I don't believe that over-optimism is the fundamental cause, though. The absolute root of the problem is a failure to design [from the outset] effective systems.

    Everything else flows from that single mistake, feeding more and more of our money to the Trillion Dollar Bonfire.


  • It always amazes me how many modern day stories are mirrored in our past-time fables and folklore.

    1. Governmental overspends on IT projects that never acheive ... The Emperor's new clothes.

    2. Global Climate Change / Rising Sea Levels ... King Cantue.

    3. Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code - The lost bloodline of the Green Man.

    Why is is that we never seem to learn from our mistakes ?

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