Watmore tells MPs why so many government IT projects fail

News Analysis

Watmore tells MPs why so many government IT projects fail

Tony Collins

One of the highest paid IT experts in government, Ian Watmore, last month justified every penny of his £190,000 salary at a single hearing of the Public Accounts Committee.

A man who has made mistakes and isn't afraid to admit it, Watmore gave MPs the most credible account - from within government - of what's wrong with public sector IT, what needs to be done, and how innovation can be stimulated.

He put the differences between private and public IT in simple terms: that the government has "too many initiatives", for example.

And his comments bordered on the politically incorrect when he said that Gateway reviews should be published - which Computer Weekly has campaigned for since 2002.

Watmore also confirmed the long-held suspicion of MPs and others that departments are wasting money hiring consultants to say things civil servants don't want to say.

And he said the government keeps alive some failing projects too long. They could be stopped earlier and "cheaply".

He said: "An innovative organisation tries a lot of things and sometimes things do not work. I think one of the valid criticisms in the past has been that when things have not worked, government has carried on trying to make them work well beyond the point at which they should have been stopped."

Watmore was strongly supportive of the work done by the 50,000 technology specialists in the public sector. He said it is possible to innovate to save money and provide better public services, while being mindful of risk.

Salary

Watmore's services to the taxpayer have come at a price. His total earnings since he joined the civil service have approached £1m in about five years. His salary has been higher than Gordon Brown's (excluding the PM's expenses). But he is arguably the most open and plain speaking civil servant IT expert to have come before the Public Accounts Committee.

And he is in a position to know why the public sector keeps making mistakes while the private sector learns from them: he was government CIO and, before that, was top of his profession in the private sector, as UK managing director of services supplier Accenture, where he worked on public sector projects such as the £2.6bn computerisation of welfare payments. He also worked on Stock Exchange IT and the outsourcing of systems at Sainsbury's.

By the time he faced MPs last month, he had been promoted to permanent secretary - head - of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

Watmore was in a valedictory euphoria, some MPs noted, for this month he joins the Football Association as its chief executive.

He was indeed relaxed - which is unusual for civil servants who come before the committee's saturnine MPs.

The committee was meeting to learn why big projects keep failing and mistakes are repeated. MPs cited projects which relied on new technology: IT to support the Child Support Agency, the Single Payment Scheme for farmers, and the £12.7bn NHS IT programme.

Public Accounts Committee chairman Edward Leigh said the committee's MPs were "particularly depressed" about the failure of the C-Nomis IT project for prisons and the probation service because it is a recent project.

Of all the committee's 16 MPs, Leigh is one of the hardest to please. He is apt to close hearings with remarks which paint a vision of the apocalypse, especially after he has questioned civil servants on IT failures. In May he told a civil servant, Phil Wheatley, who had given evidence about the failure of C-Nomis: "I have had all this before and I just do not know whether there is any point really carrying on, frankly."

This time it was different. "Thank you Mr Watmore for your candour," said Leigh at the end of last month's hearing, "We do not often hear in this committee descriptions of officials' dealing with ministers there are many lessons that we can learn and are learning."

Gateway reviews

The biggest surprise of the hearing came when Watmore agreed with Conservative MP Richard Bacon that Gateway reviews should be published. So impressed is Watmore with the Gateway review system that he says he may adopt the scheme in the Football Association.

Gateway reviews are independent internal assessments of risky IT projects, such as the ID cards scheme, the NHS IT programme and technology to support the Olympics.

Whitehall abhors the publishing of Gateway reviews, particularly the Office of Government Commerce and Jack Straw's Ministry of Justice [formerly the Department for Constitutional Affairs] which has given advice to departments on how to refuse requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

Critics of the policy of secrecy argue that ministers are wary of even a dim bulb being shone into the deep recesses of government, where policy collides with implementation.

The counter argument is that confidentiality makes for frankness in the advice given by civil servants to the reviewers, and honesty on the part of the writers of the reviews.

The result of government policy is that Gateway reviews are shown to the project's senior responsible owners only. If they want to let anyone else see the review report that is up to them.

That said, the Office of Government Commerce did release two early Gateway reviews on the ID cards scheme in March 2009 - but only after a tenacious individual had been prepared to go through four years of appeals under the Freedom of Information Act. Even then, the Office of Government Commerce emphasised that its openness on this occasion was a one-off.

Watmore is happy for publication, though, because of his experience of releasing capability reviews which give a red, amber or green light to the managerial abilities of entire departments.

Watmore told Bacon: "I am with you in that I would prefer Gateway reviews to be published because of the experience we had with capability reviews. We had the same debate [as with Gateway reviews] and we published them. It caused furore for a few weeks but then it became a normal part of the furniture."

The danger with publishing Gateway reviews is that "people will not talk about what their real issues are and things will be suppressed from the Gateway reviewers and you will end up with two reviews, one that is publishable and one that is the private one".

He added: "Current government policy is to keep them confidential but personally, on balance, I would publish for the reasons you have said."

Bacon asked Watmore whether suppliers would object to Gateway reviews being published.

"I think they probably would, but they would have to get used to it."

That situation may never arise. When Computer Weekly put Watmore's case for publishing the reviews to the Office of Government Commerce, it replied that it will not publish Gateway reviews unless required to do so under the Freedom of Information Act.

Opposition to change

The OGC's opposition to change is an example of one way the public and private sectors differ. Watmore conceded that private sector people who join the civil service "do find it difficult to get used to ways of working in government".

He added: "Many of them struggle and quite a few leave shortly afterwards we have tried to get better induction of people to show them how the system works so they do not end up raging against the machine and giving up completely."

MP Keith Hill asked whether civil servants have an incentive to learn from mistakes or success. "Why should they bother?"

Watmore replied that civil servants are not incentivized by money but a desire to deliver high-quality services. So the incentive is to see what works - even if that means civil servants leaving their desks to see what's happening on the front line.

"People sit too often in Whitehall and do not get out to the front line enough, and do not see the consequences of things that look good on bits of paper in Whitehall but are not actually translating properly in the front line."

Watmore's other suggestions for reform are just as important. He wants "fewer initiatives" and more put into them. He also wants people kept "for a bit longer in key roles", although he recognises that they will not stay in the same job for five or six years just to deliver a project successfully.

"What we could do is longer stints in duty and better mechanisms for grooming a successor so that if you know that somebody is going to leave a project in a year's time you bring the successor in six to nine months early to let them get up to speed; so that when the first one leaves the second one is ready to take over."

One way to stop projects failing is to have them run by experienced people who have made mistakes, and have recognised where mistakes have been made.

"If you have not been there, done that and got the T-shirt, you are ultimately not going to be good enough." Accenture employees who did not have the right experience did not move up. "In the civil service that was not always in the case."

Project management

The Department for Work and Pensions has the best project management experience, said Watmore. If those sorts of skills are not used elsewhere "we are going to have failures in other departments".

He conceded that government has had its fingers burnt by making policy announcements without understanding the problems of implementation.

But Watmore is an exception in government, not just because he is open and honest about mistakes. He has oiled the relationship between suppliers and his department's ministers when in other departments the permanent secretary has blocked such meetings.

He has changed the way people work even if it has made him unpopular at the start - by hot-desking, for example, which means people use whatever desk is free when they come into work. It creates a "buzzy environment", said Watmore.

The worst thing about Watmore's stint in government is that it is temporary. His talented contemporaries in government prefer to work quietly within the system, doing what they can without rocking any political boats; in short, doing what's expected of them: shaming nothing and praising everything.

Watmore is prepared to talk about change at the highest levels within government - and he has had the ear of two prime ministers. What will follow his departure is a void, one suspects.


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