It is encouraging to see the government's recently published ITstrategy focusing on addressing the success rate of public sector IT projects.
The negative clamour that surrounds IT projects when they go wrong and the propensity for those involved to become embroiled in a ruthless blame game are not constructive and achieve little.
The new strategy shows the government is thinking more holistically about all the factors that contribute to the success of IT projects, such as proper stakeholder consultation, scoping and planning, and the skills and experience of those leading and managing the projects.
One key point is often missed when failing IT projects are criticised. Major IT projects are fundamentally business change projects, and often it is the change programme itself that is at the root of the problems that arise. The IT systems are usually the most visible evidence of the failures or problems associated with such major change programmes.
To understand the real root causes of high-profile project failures requires a greater analysis and understanding of the way in which high-level government policy is interpreted and executed as it passes down the chain of command. The way in which, for example, manifesto policy aspirations are encoded into projects and eventually into IT requirements.
All too often inquiries intoproject failures look at only one component of the problem - the IT systems - rather than the overall project of which those IT systems formed a part. I suspect that is why we see the same problems repeating themselves time and again.
Looking back at my own time in public service and the way it continues to operate now, the public sector risk/reward model also requires review to help provide an environment better suited to the delivery of major change programmes.
There should also be a review of the way in which IT projects still seem to be built on the out-dated and unsuccessful "built to function, built to last" principle, when best practice has moved on to the "built to adapt, built to change" model.
Likewise, the old monolithic thinking around waterfall projects should also be pensioned off. We have far better ways of delivering successful projects, such as the component approach (connected systems and service oriented architectures) and more flexible project methodologies that deliver better results.
Apply the lessons now
It is important that we learn and apply these lessons now. Look ahead for examples of the type of flexibility we will require in the administration of public sector services in the future. We know that the current idea of a fixed retirement age and associated pensions regime is under enormous pressure. It seems likely that the model will change to one where retirement will happen as a gradual process and over a longer period than at present.
Those of my own generation may well find themselves only semi-retiring at first, maybe drawing part-pensions while still working part-time. The demands this will place on our currently functionally disparate taxation, benefits and pensions systems will be immense if we do not both reform the business processes and the IT systems to support the flexibility likely to be required.
In order to enable technology and businesses to work more closely together to deliver projects that meet requirements, it is essential that we find some way of communicating the true value of technology to our business decision-makers and policy-makers.
We are increasingly reliant at every level of society on new technological innovations in both software and hardware. Yet the number of people who understand either the technology or, more importantly, how we can use and manage it to real advantage; to re-think and improve the way we learn, work and live, remains worryingly small.
Unless we can find a way of better articulating the way in which technology and business can interact to beneficial effect, we seem likely to continue to see failed IT projects and associated public service change programmes that frustrate both providers and users.
Jerry Fishenden is national technology officer at Microsoft UK
This was first published in November 2005