When politics infects IT

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Too many government projects have become politicized says David Tidey, Assistant Chief Executive at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and chairman of the BCS Elite group of IT directors and senior mangers.

"We have got to get better at delivering IT," he said. "There are so many horror stories out there. If you just look at some of the government projects, half of the problem is that [they have become] too political.... they are not about delivering something that's very clear. Someone wants to make statements, do something for the wrong reasons."

At the end his talk to the Numara Software Engage Public Sector Forum, Tidey mentioned the National Programme for IT [NPfIT] in the NHS.

"Nobody can argue that it's a great thing to do but it has become so political. It has to be done within a ridiculously short period time."

He said it would take 15 years to achieve the changes in working practices which would bring about widespread clinical use of the systems.

Tidey has a point. And it's not only projects in central government that have become too political. An egregious example of politicization of IT in local government is a SAP-based transformation programme in Somerset.

It is managed by Southwest One, a joint venture of IBM, Somerset County Council, Taunton Deane Borough Council and Avon and Somerset Police.

Many staff at the council have long been opposed to the setting up Southwest One. The local MP Ian Liddell Grainger has made serious allegations about the joint venture. 

In response to its critics Somerset County Council, as the leading authority in the joint venture, has gone to other extreme: it defends the SAP programme with a language that's uncommon in a formal report to councillors.

The report to the full Somerset County Council meeting today is comprehensive. It doesn't hide the bad news. It says that the county council has "recently experienced some real challenges in implementing our new SAP information system, part of which went live on 1 April 2009".

But other parts of the report appear to seek applause, such that the critical sentence quoted above is almost lost:

"I am proud to report that overall...

"I am pleased to report that there have been no failures with any of our required KPIs

"Overall service has exceeded the contracted levels, and will further improve into 2009/10 ...

"I am particularly pleased to note his [a QC's ] view that our [contractual] framework is considered sound, robust and fully accessible ...

"You will be pleased to hear that the initial five projects which are being progressed in 'Wave One' of this ambitious programme have made good progress....

Somerset County Council may have good reason to believe its critics misinformed. But it defends the SAP transformation with such defensive force that one is tempted to suspect that something is seriously wrong.

Officials and ministers speak about the NPfIT with similar defensive vigour. And that scheme is most definitely awry.   

**

Somerset County Council [SCC] responded yesterday to my questions on its implementation of SAP. It said:

"The implementation has been complex and at times very challenging, but every step has been taken to ensure it has been as smooth a transition as possible. The project team has made substantial progress and SCC is continuing to manage and monitor the implementation. We remain confident that the benefits from our SAP system will greatly improve our operational efficiency.

"There is no significant backlog of SCC invoices. We are currently in 'business as usual' mode.

"We have acknowledged to staff throughout SCC that we appreciate the patience they have shown whilst this very complex process is implemented.

"SCC feels that progress will continue and we look forward to the anticipated benefits in terms of savings and efficiencies coming on line. The second planned phase of the implementation of the SAP project will only take place once we've resolved all the issues arising from the implementation of phase one.

"The initial roll-out involved purchasing, supply and finance as core services and was viewed as being essential to our business continuity. We will be bringing the same rigour and scrutiny to the second phase, involving payroll and HR in particular when that roll out takes place."

Links:

Video of Southwest One - SCC website

Too "excited" by the NPfIT?" - IT Projects blog

Unison on Southwest One

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