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.
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