Labour MP Austin Mitchell has many times attended a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee to hear civil servants try and defend their handling of an IT-based change programme which is late, over-budget by tens or hundreds of millions of pounds, or is not meeting expectations.
In summing up his views at a debate in the House of Commons on the work of his committee, he recommended that some IT suppliers be blacklisted.
He also spoke of the propensity of senior civil servants to buy “expensive” reports from consultants as a way of “anointing and sanctifying particular projects”. This is a point made by Ian Watmore, once Government CIO.
This is some of what Austin Mitchell told Parliament about some IT contracts:
“Alltoo often, Departments seem incapable of dealing with the wilystratagems and sales patter of consultancy salesmen, particularly fromthe big houses, who offer expertise, but over-praise the product inquestion and forecast that it can do more than it actually can.
“Departments, in turn, try to set too many objectives to be accomplished, which always leads to failure in IT contracts.
“Whenwe try to do more with an IT system than it can bear, it inevitablybreaks down and performs inadequately. There is failure on both sides,on the part of the Department and the salespeople.
“We see that problem in various reports before us.
“Implementationof the Defence Information Infrastructure programme is running 18months late. We recommend that the Ministry of Defence should ask itscontractor ATLAS to monitor and report regularly on the health oflegacy systems and develop contingency plans for each system, funded bythe management fee that it receives. That is an explicit criticism, butit is too late.
“The matter should have been overseen by the OGC and theMOD itself when the contract was agreed.
“[Richard Bacon MP]will no doubt wax eloquent about the NHS National Programme for IT…Here is a contract, however, that is so curious that it is inexplicableto me. Our report showed that the care records service is at least fouryears behind schedule. Of the original four local service providers -the main suppliers responsible for implementing systems at local level- only two remain. The others have dropped out.
“The Governmenthave found that while they can direct NHS trusts and primary caretrusts to take the systems, they have no such power over foundationtrusts, even though the system would generate substantial benefits forpatients. Therefore, foundation trusts have not participated, whichpulls the plug, in my view, on the whole system.
“That is anotherexample of a contract that was not adequately thought through oradequately audited right at the start.
“The Government weretrying to do too much with the systems, which were over-sold.Departments need better advice to put them on a more secure andeffective platform for controlling the suppliers of IT systems theydeal with…
“No taxpayer pound should be the source of easyprofit. That is an absolute maxim. However, in consultancy and ITservices, the taxpayer pound has been a source of far-too-easy profits.
“We need to control that, exact penalties wherenecessary and blacklist firms that are over-selling in that fashion tosee that they do not make the same profits and mistakes in future.”
“Government do not think through their purposes or the difficulties of achieving their objectives clearly enough.
“Becausethey are an idealistic Government …the gestures come from the heart… the consequences of implementation are not thought through. Ifprojects fail, it increases public alienation and cynicism about theGovernment’s purposes and objectives.”
And on consultants Mitchell said:
“There is the propensity to spend huge sums on consultancypayments, largely to the big accountancy houses, which under thisGovernment have grown fat on enormous contracts…
“Whether it is millions or billions, these sums are still huge andunjustifiable. It is an abdication of responsibility by Ministers, whoformulate a policy and get it sanctioned by a consultancy reportwithout giving the civil service – the senior civil service, inparticular – its normal role in policy formulation, which is toencourage, to advise and to warn.
“It becomes a coalition of Ministersand consultants who justify the policy on the basis of consultancyreports and then use them to argue in its favour. However, thoseconsultancy reports are often ineffective and they are all an expensiveway of anointing and sanctifying particular projects.”
He said the Public Accounts Committee needs a “power to ensure that our recommendations are implemented–in otherwords, we should be able to audit them after a year to see whether they havebeen implemented”.
It’shard to credibly deny much of what Mitchell says. The trouble is,government cannot blacklist the big IT suppliers because it’s tooreliant on so few.
On consultancy from the big companies,departments will continue to justify wrong decisions – as has happenedat the Rural Payments Agency – by using friendly and supportiveconsultancy reports. That’s a habit too ingrained ever to give up -unless a new government wants to sweep the system clean and is preparedto confront the Sir (and Madam) Humphreys.
Such a large-scale confrontation has never happened before – but you never know.
House of Commons debate on the work of the Public Accounts Committee – Parliament’s website
Why project managers fail – Evolving Web
Why projects fail – paullepa.com
Why IT Projects fail – BusinessBrief.com
Why big government IT projects fail – ITworld, Canada