Has the private sector caught the public sector IT disease?

This is a guest post by Steve Burrows, principal consultant at Isle of Man-based Business & IT Consultancy SBA. He is a chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society (BCS) and a member of the CW500 Club and the BCS ELITE senior IT leadership forums.
The reputation of IT in the UK public sector has long been tainted. A succession of expensive high-profile IT project failures has irrevocably tarnished the reputation of government in delivering effective, on- time and in-budget IT programmes, leading to a widely held view that government cannot do IT. Unfair perhaps, many smaller public sector IT projects are implemented successfully, but these are unheard of, little gets written about success and the government’s IT victories are pushed into the shadows by its massive failures.
By and large, the private sector has remained unscathed – projects may fail, be over budget or late, but because they are the private affair of the companies involved we rarely hear of major IT project debacles from the private sector. In recent years however the tentacles of corporate IT have extended out of the offices and factories and into the homes of customers, users of web-enabled services such as home banking and shopping. With this distributed access the failures are becoming more obvious, and the past week has seen two high-profile failures of private sector IT from Barclays and Tesco.
In the case of Barclays, the online banking services provided to offshore customers through Barclays Wealth appear to have all but collapsed. Apparently unavailable for several days they eventually returned late last week in a form available to customers overnight, from 17:30 to 08:00 before being fixed for Monday after nearly a week of downtime. 
Perhaps the systems couldn’t cope with the load of executing transactions and giving customers access at the same time – we don’t know, Barclays haven’t explained their problems to customers, they merely gave a muted apology on the website following a login attempt.
Tesco’s woes are easier to see, and probably affect many more customers. Tesco have just upgraded their online grocery shopping website – disastrously. Something has gone seriously awry in the transfer of orders from the old system to the new. Some customers who booked delivery slots ahead, by entering a small placeholder order for the future and then amending or completing the order nearer to the delivery date, have found that the new system is unable to amend their placeholding order – whilst everything looks fine on the customer’s web browser, the order received by the local store for picking is merely what was in the placeholding order without amendments or additions, so the wrong goods have been delivered to their homes.
Despite having been aware of some problems on day one of rolling out the new web system, after six days of customer frustration Tesco had neither resolved the technical issues nor rolled back to the old system. Tesco website technical support staff denied the existence of the problems, despite being plagued with customer complaints. 
It became apparent that both Tesco customer helpline and technical support staff were unable to see via their systems the same information that customers could see over the web in their own homes, and so were unable to appreciate or resolve the problems encountered by customers. 
The technical support at Tesco refused to accept the existence of a problem for some customers until an irate shopper persuaded a support analyst to log on to the public Tesco website using her customer identity and compare what was visible in her shopping basket on the web with that which Tesco staff could see at the back-end, by all accounts the poor support technician was virtually dumbstruck with embarrassment at what he saw, the massive disparity between the customer’s online order and that visible to Tesco staff.
These instances, two major private sector failures of customer-facing IT in a week, show us not only that the private sector is not immune to IT failure, but that our biggest corporates with effectively unlimited IT resource working to their own objectives and timescales still don’t get IT governance. In both cases one has to ask what went wrong? Where was the testing? Who oversaw it? Who authorised the go live decisions? It seems the private sector still has some lessons to learn about delivering major IT projects successfully, hopefully it will do so more quickly and with less pain than the public sector.
The cynic might observe that perhaps that Philip Clarke, Tesco’s Group IT Director, has take his eye off the ball with his impending elevation to the CEO’s seat. If so then Sainsbury’s re-ascendancy to the top spot in the UK supermarket league seems assured, but more importantly the vast majority of customers will simply think “that’s IT, it always lets us down”. High profile failures are always damaging, but the failures of prominent and widely used customer-facing IT systems such as Barclays online banking and Tesco’s online shopping hurt us much more deeply than government IT failures. 
These failures reaching out into customers homes not only damage the companies that provide such poor systems, they also undermine faith and confidence in IT as a technology, and in the IT practitioners who create it. 
The reputations of all IT workers are demeaned by such failures, the governance and management failings that allowed these errors to occur bring us all into disrepute by association. The harm suffered due to IT failings in large corporates not only affects them and their customers, it taints all of us in the IT profession, fairly or otherwise.
We want to hear your thoughts! Please let us know your opinions on Steve’s article by posting a comment below.

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The suggestion that governance is the answer to IT failure implies that complex systems are capable of getting to 0% failure rates in a regime where it is impossible to test anything completely. That's not the case, so management is forced to make risk based decisions on go-live. Doing so is not incompetence, its sensible IT management. I have a full response to this post on my blog: http://bankervision.typepad.com/bankervision/2010/07/is-governance-the-answer-to-system-failure.html
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Hi James, and thank you for picking this up. I have taken the liberty of replying to your response on your blog https://bit.ly/a91iX2 and explaining how and why we need different, contextual, approaches to governance when we start rolling IT outside of our firewalls and into the public domain, and why the governance of IT becomes a matter of corporate governance instead of being within the domain of the CIO. Cheers, Steve
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There does not appear to be any similarity between these incidents and public sector project failures. There are major IT incidents that directly affect customers every week. Some are managed well enough that they do not make the press. These two obviously have. As systems become more self service rather than used by call centres, branch staff etc. it will become more noticeable when there are problems. One the basis of these incidents I don't think you can say that there are any issues with IT governance at these organisations. I don't think there are many large organisations that have not ever had a major systems issue. Obviously there is no data on this as everyone tries to keep these things out of the public eye and avoid being cited in articles like this.
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@David. I think there are direct comparisons between these incidents and some high-profile public sector IT failures, the commonality is that they were let out the door before they were ready, whether due to political or management pressure or blind optimism. The governance point is predicated on the difference in standards needed for internal vs external projects. Those systems which we expose to the public cease to be internal IT, they become products and services of our organisations and require higher standards. We don't expect cars, aircraft, laser printers, mobile phones etc. to be launched with major, disabling faults (barring the iPhone4). These are all technically complex products containing huge rafts of code. Yet somehow IT expects to get away with it, accepts lower standards of quality and reliability. Whilst IT is an internal service this may be acceptable, but when we roll it out the door as a product offered to the public it ceases to be so, shortcomings and failures then expose our organisations to reputational and legal risks which require higher standards of governance, and escalate the issues from the parochial domain of IT governance into the higher plane of corporate governance. HTH, Steve
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The heritage of public-facing IT is littered with embarrassment for even the largest and important organisations. For example, many may remember such failures at British Airways and the London Stock Exchange. When a problem occurs, the real measure of the business is their effectiveness in managing the recovery process. Failure to restore 'business as usual' or to respond adequately to customer service issues are the most damning aspects. Of course, my own view is that such failures often have roots firmly planted in the adherence to the redundant iT paradigm. By focusing on IT, the 'system' is ignored so we should not be surprised when the system fails, even if the IT still appears to be working.
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