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.