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Individuals and politics cripple IT projects
It never ceases to amaze me how many people believe that the campaign to improve IT projects in the public sector means making the public sector into the private sector.
I agree with the letter written by Chris Britton (Letters, 13 July) that better funding and using modern, agile approaches to IT implementation are required. But I disagree with the comments by Rene Cheront (Letters, 20 July), who interprets the solution to be outsourcing public sector IT departments, on the basis that they operate practices from the dark ages in organisations that have no commercial impetus to improve - this opinion is so misinformed it is ludicrous.
The British Computer Society report, The Challenges of Complex IT Projects, notes that the findings of a joint Oxford University/Computer Weekly survey "found little difference in the performance of the public and private sector" on IT projects. In addition, the management summary of the report finds that, "A striking proportion of project difficulties stem from people in both customer and supplier organisations failing to implement known best practice."
Anyone who has used Prince2 and DSDM/Conference Room Pilot effectively will know that the payback can be fantastic. I have and I work for a public sector IT department. In any organisation it is possible to have a great success using these techniques on one project only to find that the people on the next project turn their back on them.
It is individuals, politics and power that either cripple or enable projects. So the issue is not about private or public sector, it is about professionalism, following good practice, enabling transparency and having appropriate accountability. Any means to ensure that these become intrinsic elements of all IT projects has got to be good, even if it means legislation.
Senior project manager, Bristol
Private sector IT could learn from public sector
I work in the IT department of a local authority and have previously worked in IT in the private sector. I can assure Rene Cheront (Letters, 20 July) that life in the public sector, and in particular IT, is no joy-ride. I now work longer hours and under a great deal more stress than I ever did in the private sector.
Far from being shielded from the "economic reality" of the private sector, outsourcing of poorly performing departments is as prevalent in the public sector as it is in the private sector. We also regularly benchmark against our private sector competitors and other local authority IT services to ensure that the service we provide remains cost-effective and efficient.
Our IT department strives to embrace new technologies and works tirelessly to improve our methods in order to enhance the service we provide. We are far from being disorganised, unmotivated and unaccountable, as Cheront suggests. Public sector organisations are wide open to public accountability, whereas private sector firms can sweep undesirable issues under the carpet.
It is also worth noting that a lot of the failed public sector IT projects Cheront mentions are undertaken by private contractors, who ultimately (unlike the public sector) have a "profit at any cost" ethos that overrides and clouds the ultimate aim of the project - to deliver quality services to the public.
I acknowledge that the public sector is far from perfect, but there are many areas where private sector IT could learn from the public sector.
Kenny Lang, IT analyst
Managers must change mindset in public IT
Rene Cheront (Letters, 20 July) hides some basic truths in a lot of nonsense.
Lack of market forces/profit motives are not the problem in themselves. Indeed, past experience of the introduction of these features into UK public sector industries has frequently proved disastrous.
Rather it is the mindset that sometimes inhabits the public sector environment that is to blame for slack IT performance and it is a matter of management, not economic ideology to resolve this.
There is no reason why IT projects cannot be run along tight lines as in the private sector. It is up to management to instil this spirit in the workforce, and perhaps this is where the driving force is lacking.
Having worked with outsourced systems in the past, I know the difficulties involved in obtaining modifications in an acceptable timely and economic framework. Consequently, the public sector still has frequently to employ software engineers to build ad-hoc add-on solutions to enhance outsourced systems.
Tony Dyer, Research and clinical trials database manager, Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital
This was first published in August 2004