How government spin doctors reacted to a CIO's comments that only 30% of IT projects succeed

Analysis

Reporters from The Times and The Guardian have followed up an article on Computer Weekly.com, and on this blog, about a speech by Joe Harley, who is Chief Information Officer and Group Director of Programme and Systems Delivery at the Department for Work and Pensions.

Speaking at the Government UK IT Summit in London, as a member of the government’s CIO Council, Joe Harley had said: “Today only 30% we estimate of our projects and programmes are successful. So it’s not a place for everyone to be. Why shouldn’t it be 90% successful? So that’s the target we have taken on [90%].”

Harley’s honesty is to be welcomed. He was offering an uncoloured view of the size of the challenge facing government CIOs. It was another way of saying: “This is a tough job and we don’t make light of it”.

But when reporters rang the Department of Work and Pensions they came up against the government’s smooth-running communications machine.


The broadcast media was deterred from reporting Harley’s speech after communications officers at the Department of Work and Pensions made statements that added complexity to what Harley said. The broadcast media is, in general, easily deterred by complexity.

But there is a serious side to the under-reporting of IT problems in the private sector or within government: no clamour for lessons to be learned.

The Standish Group said in 1994: “When a bridge falls down, it is investigated and a report is written on the cause of the failure. This is not so in the computer industry where failures are covered up, ignored, and/or rationalised. As a result, we keep making the same mistakes over and over again.”

In 2005 Steve Lamey, CIO of HM Revenue and Customs gave a “tell-it-like-it-is” speech at a Government IT Summit which was reported in Computer Weekly and followed up by the national press, whereupon the department issued a denial on its website. Ever since, in public speeches, Lamey has, perhaps wisely, had nothing but good to say about the department’s IT.

Joe Harley, at the Government UK IT Summit on 15 May 2007, told it like it is. He showed a slide on the government’s targets for improving the quality and reliability of projects and programmes. It revealed one of the targets: “Move from 30% success now to 90% + success by 2010/11.”

And Harley told the conference of the aims of the Strategic Supply Board, which he jointly chairs with Tim Smart of BT. The Board comprises government CIOs and supplier representatives.

Harley said: “What are we steering in any event? First a major endeavour to improve the quality and reliability of the delivery of our projects and programmes. Today only 30% we estimate of our projects and programmes are successful. So it’s not a place for everyone to be. Why shouldn’t it be 90% successful? So that’s the target we have taken on.

“Secondly value for money. The taxpayer is also one of our customers of course. We want to achieve a 20% overall reduction in IT spend in government.” Given that the public sector’s yearly IT spend is £14bn “you can see there is an opportunity”, he added.

After his speech we asked Harley why he said that only 30% of projects succeed. He said many projects fail for reasons that are largely predictable such as inadequate specifications. He questioned whether a project that was three months late should be defined as a success.

When reporters from the national media followed up Harley’s comments, communications officers at the Department for Work and Pensions sought to show that nothing was as simple as it seemed.

A spokeswoman for the Department told The Guardian that the figures quoted by Joe Harley came from an independent report with “very narrow criteria”, which was also highly critical of private sector projects.

“Only projects which were on time, on budget and exactly to specification were deemed a success. If they never saw the light of day they were deemed a failure. Anything in between – around 63% of the projects – was deemed neither a success nor failure,” said the spokeswoman.

These are points the broadcast media would have found difficult to explain to a general audience.

When Computer Weekly contacted the Department, a spokeswoman said: “The government has set a high target of achieving 90% of its IT programmes delivered on time on budget and to specification by 2010/211. The report that Joe Harley was quoting from was an independent report… The definition of success is exactly on time to specification and to budget exactly.” She said that if a project is a day late it would not be classified as a success.

She also said that Joe Harley was, in fact, quoting from a report that was written by students at Lancaster University in 2005, who were quoting a survey published in 2004 by the US company Standish Group.

Hmmm

One day, perhaps during this millenium, a government spokesperson will react to a candid speech by one of its CIOs by saying: “Yes. He spoke the truth and we’ve nothing to add.”

Links:

Revenue and Customs board must confront culture of denial

Revenue under fire for trying to constrain directors’ public speeches

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