Just as government starts to get better at major IT projects - enter, Brexit

Slowly, slowly, the UK government is getting better at big IT projects. Thanks to Whitehall watchdog, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), we’re able to track the improvements in major programmes, and its latest annual report shows the incidence of problem projects is declining.

None of the 29 government IT projects scrutinised by the IPA this year were given the worst “red” ranking, and only seven were rated as “amber/red”. Back in 2015 there were four red projects, and 16 were amber/red.

Congratulations, then, are due.

Thanks to the IPA, many of the recurrent and often basic problems are now spotted earlier and addressed. Put simply, it’s not so easy to hide when things are going wrong. But don’t think for a minute this means we won’t see further government IT failures.

Reading through the detailed notes published by the IPA to accompany its report, you can still see common issues that have yet to be cracked.

The difficulty in recruiting enough people with the necessary digital skills continues to be a challenge. Under-performing suppliers delay work. Over-ambitious, often politically driven targets mean timescales and business cases need to be redrawn. Sometimes things just take more time than people expect. Sometimes things just go wrong.

And because big public sector projects tend to be, well, very big – when they do go wrong, they go spectacularly wrong. The drive for smaller, more agile IT projects is also helping to mitigate against big failures.

Project managers in the private sector would recognise most of these symptoms, but they don’t generally face the public scrutiny of their government counterparts.

Reading the IPA report offers a sense that, given a following wind, the right resources, and political support, the number of problem projects will continue to decline. But what it also suggests is that sense of progression is still vulnerable to unexpected shocks to the system.

Enter, Brexit.

“Ensuring the UK is ready to exit the European Union has resulted in a significant increase in the number of projects and programmes that need to be delivered across government. While many of these projects are not of the same scale or duration as [major] projects, EU exit related projects are, by their very nature, high priority and need to be delivered at pace and with confidence,” says the IPA report.

“As such, EU exit has required an increase in government resources and, specifically for project delivery skills in government, a need to redeploy professionals and prioritise activity across departmental portfolios.”

Those carefully worded paragraphs are a stark warning that the practicalities of whatever form of Brexit we end up with, threatens to overwhelm government resources and redirect other priorities. As stated previously in these pages, Cabinet ministers hoping that technology will solve the more intractable difficulties of leaving the EU are kidding themselves – and us.

Whitehall’s project management community deserve recognition for important steps forward in recent years. They will be aware that Brexit could derail that progress very quickly.

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