The long-running problems encountered by the Home Office in developing the probation service's IT strategy highlight the need for effective project management, experts claim.
Last week, government officials told the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee that dire project management had played a major part in the service's troubled IT strategy over recent years. Allied to this was a lack of continuity caused by a rapid turnover of key staff.
A classic project management mistake found in the probation service's IT strategy was uncertainty over which person "owned" the project within the department. A lack of clear leadership can mean the user and supplier relationship may suffer.
"With large projects there is often a lack of clear ownership, which has resulted in a number of high- profile project failures," said Martin Sexton, financial systems implementation specialist at London Market Systems.
Indeed, the Home Office's probation service strategy can be used as an example of how not to manage an IT project.
Seven different programme directors worked on the National Probation Service Information Systems Strategy (NPSISS) between 1993 and 2000, of whom only two had significant experience of managing major IT projects.
Officials giving evidence at the Public Accounts Committee acknowledged that the Home Office's track record on probation service IT was poor. John Gieve, Home Office permanent under-secretary of state admitted they have had some painful lessons in IT management over the last 10 years.
Earlier this year, the Home Office came under fire in a damning National Audit Office (NAO) report, which criticised spiralling project costs for NPSISS. It highlighted poor specification of expected outputs, weaknesses in service monitoring and poor control of purchases which contributed to a 70% overspend.
If officials are to be believed, then the report's findings have been taken on board and improvements made. "We have increased our investment in procurement and project management for the probation service," Gieve told the committee.
Yet, established project management processes could help to ensure effective project management. Gieve believes that the Home Office partly suffered because little use was made of the Government's Projects in Controlled Environments (Prince) project management process when implementing NPSISS.
Prince is a project management method covering the organisation, management and control of projects. The latest version, Prince2, is designed to incorporate the needs of existing users and enhance the method towards a generic, best practice approach for management of all types of projects.
There are benefits in following established project management methodologies, but there are also hidden dangers. Sexton said, "Prince2 can be misapplied by replacing an understanding of project management with a dogged following of the method.
"Bad project managers can hide behind a procedural veil, while good project managers can waste inappropriate time on project administration."
The likes of the probation service's complex IT strategy present a myriad of challenges to project managers. Many of these are not even technology-related, changing business culture is an example. Experts warn that this puts pressure on project leaders to grasp the true business complexity of the task.
Failure to do this could lead to IT managers becoming the fall guy for projects that spiral out of their control.
This was first published in November 2001