Carrying the can to ensure IT success

Accountability – or the lack of it – has been a hot topic in government IT ¬circles for some time. One of the recurring causes of project failure in Whitehall is the lack of consistency in leadership, both from within the civil service and politically, where senior individuals move on (or are moved on) into new jobs elsewhere.

A few years ago a new role was created to focus on accountability – that of senior responsible owner (SRO) – but all that has happened in many cases is the SRO changes, even if the title remains.

It is all too rare that the head of a large Whitehall IT project at its inception is still in place at its conclusion.

So it is refreshing to see a government IT leader putting personal accountability at the top of his priorities. “If I get it wrong they can fire me,” said Serious Fraud Office CIO Josh Ellis.

In private sector IT accountability is, more often than not, accepted and expected. An IT project manager’s career succeeds or fails on his or her ability to deliver and bring the project in on time and budget. IT suppliers have lost contracts where they have been unable to ensure consistency in their project leadership and key team members.

It is true that Whitehall is a unique environment, one where many senior staff view regular job moves as the way to advance their career prospects, and are often encouraged to do so. But when the political policy dictates large-scale, centralised projects such as the NHS National Programme for IT, that situation sits entirely at odds with the need for accountable, consistent management. The NHS programme has suffered more than most for all-too frequent changes in SRO.

Ultimately, even with the best policies in place, accountability is a personal thing, as Ellis demonstrates. Project leaders need to be incentivised and rewarded for longevity and success – or the structure of those projects needs to be reviewed.

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Josh Ellis sounds like a rare example of responsible and accountable management in public sector IT. Unfortunately, from what I've seen of government IT projects, it can often be almost impossible to extract an existing project from the clutches of the same few bloated consultancies that dominate government IT.

In some cases, civil service managers sign ill-advised contracts tying them into a long-term reliance on external consultancies, or they may be prevented from hiring their own staff - permanent or freelance - to meet their own needs, but forced instead to rely on a handful of government-approved consultancies.

These consultancies bring their own staff into the project, charging inflated daily rates for inexperienced intra-company-transfer staff, and even more inflated rates for all those "architects" and "designers" and so on who now infest the upper reaches of the project hierarchy.

In some cases the government's own staff are deliberately excluded from the design/development process or reduced to the status of coding monkeys with little or no opportunity to apply their experience of the relevant business area. This effectively ensures that most of the specialist knowledge of the system is kept within the grasp of the consultancy, while the government client becomes ever more reliant on the consultancy's staff to tell them what their system does and how it works.

Meanwhile, it is all too common for the consultancy to treat a well-funded government project as an opportunity to train its staff in new technologies - however inappropriate to the project - at the tax-payer's expense, improving its own skills base with little or no benefit to the government project.

The end goal of this process is to create the conditions for government departments to be forced to outsource even more work - and jobs - to the consultancies that already exert a near stranglehold on government IT and who are destroying opportunities within the wider UK IT industry through their almost exclusive reliance on imported staff.

So Mr Ellis might well seek to return accountability for public sector IT to its rightful place in his department, but when so many projects are already effectively under the control of external consultancies, there seems little prospect of public sector managers wresting genuine accountability and control of their projects back from their private sector "partners".