The lesson of DWP/Fujitsu - ask your suppliers the difficult questions

Oh dear. It’s one thing to win a multimillion-pound government IT contract only to later be exposed for running late and over budget – what IT supplier hasn’t done that a few times? But to win a £300m deal and lose it before it has even started – surely that takes some doing.

The Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) cancellation of its desktop support contract with Fujitsu ultimately reflects badly on both parties.

Having said that, credit is due to the DWP for recognising a failing project at an early stage and cancelling it – something that government has done all too infrequently in the past. But there must be questions asked about the due diligence undertaken by the department in its selection process.

What with the Gateway project monitoring process and the extensive procurement rules around such contracts, surely Whitehall must have confirmed Fujitsu’s ability to transition the deal from the previous supplier, EDS – now part of HP?

If so, then one of two things must have happened – either that due diligence was not done suitably diligently, or Fujitsu, shall we say, was over-ambitious and economical with the truth.

Every major supplier likes to say they want to form a partnership with their clients – too often in practice it means they just want to sell you products for many years to come. It benefits nobody to misrepresent the ability to deliver – one of the first rules of business is to know what you are good at. Suppliers must be honest with themselves as much as with their prospective customers.

So is it more a case of caveat emptor – buyer beware? Should we be so cynical about IT suppliers that we assume they are untrustworthy in their sales pitch until proven otherwise? No IT decision-maker can work on that basis.

One of the favoured buzzwords of the Cameron government is transparency, and that has to apply both to buyer and seller in IT. Technical and commercial risk needs to be shared appropriately. Trust remains the essence of a successful relationship. Failing fast should always be an option.

But make sure you ask the difficult questions of your preferred bidder before you sign that contract.