Labour MP: blacklist some IT suppliers

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Labour MP Austin Mitchell has many times attended a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee to hear civil servants try and defend their handling of an IT-based change programme which is late, over-budget by tens or hundreds of millions of pounds, or is not meeting expectations. 

In summing up his views at a debate in the House of Commons on the work of his committee, he recommended that some IT suppliers be blacklisted.

He also spoke of the propensity of senior civil servants to buy "expensive" reports from consultants as a way of "anointing and sanctifying particular projects". This is a point made by Ian Watmore, once Government CIO.

This is some of what Austin Mitchell told Parliament about some IT contracts:

"All too often, Departments seem incapable of dealing with the wily stratagems and sales patter of consultancy salesmen, particularly from the big houses, who offer expertise, but over-praise the product in question and forecast that it can do more than it actually can.

"Departments, in turn, try to set too many objectives to be accomplished, which always leads to failure in IT contracts.

"When we try to do more with an IT system than it can bear, it inevitably breaks down and performs inadequately. There is failure on both sides, on the part of the Department and the salespeople.

"We see that problem in various reports before us.

"Implementation of the Defence Information Infrastructure programme is running 18 months late. We recommend that the Ministry of Defence should ask its contractor ATLAS to monitor and report regularly on the health of legacy systems and develop contingency plans for each system, funded by the management fee that it receives. That is an explicit criticism, but it is too late.

"The matter should have been overseen by the OGC and the MOD itself when the contract was agreed.

"[Richard Bacon MP] will no doubt wax eloquent about the NHS National Programme for IT... Here is a contract, however, that is so curious that it is inexplicable to me. Our report showed that the care records service is at least four years behind schedule. Of the original four local service providers - the main suppliers responsible for implementing systems at local level - only two remain. The others have dropped out.

"The Government have found that while they can direct NHS trusts and primary care trusts to take the systems, they have no such power over foundation trusts, even though the system would generate substantial benefits for patients. Therefore, foundation trusts have not participated, which pulls the plug, in my view, on the whole system.

"That is another example of a contract that was not adequately thought through or adequately audited right at the start.

"The Government were trying to do too much with the systems, which were over-sold. Departments need better advice to put them on a more secure and effective platform for controlling the suppliers of IT systems they deal with...

"No taxpayer pound should be the source of easy profit. That is an absolute maxim. However, in consultancy and IT services, the taxpayer pound has been a source of far-too-easy profits.

"We need to control that, exact penalties where necessary and blacklist firms that are over-selling in that fashion to see that they do not make the same profits and mistakes in future."

He added:

"Government do not think through their purposes or the difficulties of achieving their objectives clearly enough.

"Because they are an idealistic Government ...the gestures come from the heart ... the consequences of implementation are not thought through. If projects fail, it increases public alienation and cynicism about the Government's purposes and objectives."

And on consultants Mitchell said:

"There is the propensity to spend huge sums on consultancy payments, largely to the big accountancy houses, which under this Government have grown fat on enormous contracts...

"Whether it is millions or billions, these sums are still huge and unjustifiable. It is an abdication of responsibility by Ministers, who formulate a policy and get it sanctioned by a consultancy report without giving the civil service - the senior civil service, in particular - its normal role in policy formulation, which is to encourage, to advise and to warn.

"It becomes a coalition of Ministers and consultants who justify the policy on the basis of consultancy reports and then use them to argue in its favour. However, those consultancy reports are often ineffective and they are all an expensive way of anointing and sanctifying particular projects."

He said the Public Accounts Committee needs a "power to ensure that our recommendations are implemented--in other words, we should be able to audit them after a year to see whether they have been implemented".

My comment:

It's hard to credibly deny much of what Mitchell says. The trouble is, government cannot blacklist the big IT suppliers because it's too reliant on so few.

On consultancy from the big companies, departments will continue to justify wrong decisions - as has happened at the Rural Payments Agency - by using friendly and supportive consultancy reports. That's a habit too ingrained ever to give up - unless a new government wants to sweep the system clean and is prepared to confront the Sir (and Madam) Humphreys.

Such a large-scale confrontation has never happened before - but you never know.

House of Commons debate on the work of the Public Accounts Committee - Parliament's website

Ian Watmore - why so many Government IT projects and  programmes fail

Why project managers fail - Evolving Web

Why projects fail - paullepa.com

Why IT Projects fail - BusinessBrief.com

Why big government IT projects fail - ITworld, Canada

1 Comment

  • Austin Mitchell is absolutely right. The large firms are responsible for some major failures both here in the UK and in the United States. These firms of accountants take students who have the best degrees, pay them lots (out of the taxpayers' purse) and win business based not on experience, delivery, work ethic but on balance sheet (furnished by government) slick presentations and over ambitious promises.

    There are some fantastic projects out there in the private sector mostly that have innovation, control, stability, delivery with a fraction of the resources some of these public sector failed projects have ever had. [One supplier has] managed to win over 5 statewide voter registration systems in the United States, failed to deliver and every state has had to go back to the market.

    Failed NHS systems, failed farmer payment systems. When will this stop? Projects are often done on a time and materials basis with scope creep justifying enormous project over-runs and massive over project expenses.

    There are companies and teams out there with a fraction of these IT projects resources delivering massive functional projects in an ever changing environment with a project expectation of change as more is learned about the business processes and improvements found to processes.

    I am as always staggered to hear (usually when the project has already gone massively over budget) that yet another government agency or department has poured yet more money into these companies.

    Come on UK Plc stop choosing the elephant in the room. It's too fat and lumbering to change direction. Get yourself a meerkat: cute and fast with a constant look to the horizon...... [edited]

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