NHS IT project is dead, but why do large IT projects fail? Part 25

Following the news that the NHS National Project for IT was dropped I have been posting some of the views I have recently had provided to me for an unrelated feature I was working on about why large IT projects are prone to fail.

Because I have had such a good response I am keeping the debate going on the blog.

Here are the posts already published: Part 1 Brian Randell, part 2 Anthony Finkelstein, part 3 Yann L’Huillier, part 4 James Martin, part 5 Philip Virgo , part 6 Tony Collins, part 7 ILan Oshri, part 8, Robert Morgan part 9 Sam Kingston, part 10 Peter Brudenal, part 11 Mark Lewis,  part 12  John Worthy, part 13 Stuart Drew, part 14 Milan Gupta, part 15 from a reader known as Matt, part 16 Fotis Karonis, part 17 Fergus Cloughley, part 18  Steve Haines, part 19 David Holling, part 20  Bryan Cruickshank, part 21  Rob Lee, part 22 Tony Prestedge, part 23 BG Srinivas and part 24 Craig Beddis.

Today in part 25 I feature the views of Stuart Mitchenall, head of business support services, at Tandridge District Council. He has worked in Public Sector IT since 1984. Half of this has been in central government and the rest in Local.

He says: “I have never worked outside the public sector, but have worked in Central (Whitehall) Government, the wider Civil Service, and now local Government. There is value in all the comments above, but which are the key factors?

In business, I believe that profit drives the methodologies to produce the outcome that was required; the central driver – the board, the shareholder, is less interested in the project detail, more in outcomes. So projects are progressed by the person responsible for the business close to the project.

Central Government’s large projects switch that round, with the top of the office demanding project detail at a much lower level, showing less confidence in its own machinery and yet dispersing culpability very widely. Decisions are taken at the top, and then micro management (public sector bureaucracy) continues to intervene in projects.
Local Government shows facets of the private sector; the big decisions, however, are imposed upon the sector, and the dispersal of the solution actually makes LG more successful through a competitive supply market. And failures don’t affect the entire sector.

But the method is still micro management, rather than outcome, driven, so local government is still slow at decisions and prone to delay, as political views demand justification for the method rather than the outcome.

So perhaps the answer is volatility keeps projects on their toes, and the apparent focus of business is more rigorous than the public sector methods. This, together with Tony Hainsworth’s comments (see below in bold) on Political and Social objectives, I believe accounts for much of the perceived differences.”

Following replies to his post on the CW 500 club linkedIn group Stuart said: “I would add that the point I was seeking to make (and some missed) was that the volatility and speed of implementation is a factor – the focus of organisations which deliver quickly seems to benefit whereas the bureaucracy and uncertainty of Public Sector implementations seems to mitigate against success. That doesn’t mean that the Private will always deliver better, but it does mean that the risks of failure increases because of the complexity of the Public Sector Governance.”

Tony Hainsworth, Systems Development & ICT Security Manager at St Edmundsbury borough council:
When I worked in the private sector, there was usually a clear directive from management about requirements and on top of this was the profit motive. Public sector projects often have political or social objectives (and several stakeholders often with conflicting priorities) so can be doomed from the start.

I am still looking for more opinions so please keep them coming.