MPs want more innovation - and transparency over IT-based projects

“Projects which have been subject to [Gateway] reviews have still experienced problems, and there is evidence that they are not always taken seriously. This is reinforced by a lack of transparency.”

“Innovation involves trying new things, some of which ultimately will not work. So
experimentation is necessary, but with public money at stake, government needs to be able to halt ineffective activities quickly and learn lessons from them.”

PAC report, 10 September 2009 

A report published today by the Public Accounts Committee says that Gateway reviews will be more effective if published.

The Committee calls on the Office of Government Commerce, which runs the Gateway review scheme, to adopt US-style openness on IT projects and programmes. 

It’s the second time the PAC has called in a report for Gateway reviews to be published. 

The OGC, however, has told Computer Weekly repeatedly that it will not publish Gateway reviews routinely. Though the OGC has published ageing Gateway reviews on the NPfIT and on the ID Cards scheme, it will especially resist publishing reviews if they are still topical and hence of media interest.

In its report Learning and Innovation in Government, the PAC says:

“Performance monitoring is likely to be most effective where there is transparency
around the results. Gateway reviews are an important tool, but could be made more
effective at encouraging learning and innovation.

“ThisCommittee has previously argued for increased transparency in respectof the Gateway reviews. The reviews will be more effective if they arepublished and their conclusions shared across government, in keepingwith the spirit of the United States Government’s  ExpectMore.gov website.

“OGCshould also analyse systematically the available data from previouslycompleted reviews, in order to identify systemic lessons which shouldbe shared more widely.”

It also says:

“Ways of capturing lessons have been introduced, such as the OGC’sGateway Reviews, but some of the projects subject to them have stillexperienced problems. Government has also paid insufficient attentionto analysing the lessons from the reviews. A lack of good
management information is still a hindrance in some cases, and inhibits understanding the
impact of innovation.”

A further passage from the report says that the lessons from Gateway reviews and project failures are not always taken seriously – there is too little external challenge:

“The Office of Government Commerce’s Gateway process can provide an effective challenge process throughout the life a project.

“Some problematic initiatives such as the Child Support Agency, tax credits, and the Single Payment Scheme started as good ideas but were badly implemented, in part because they were not subject to sufficient external challenge.

“Introducing earlier reviews into the Gateway process should help, but the process is not without its own flaws. Projects which have been subject to reviews have still experienced problems, and there is evidence that they are not always taken seriously.

“This is reinforced by a lack of transparency.

“Unlike the USA, where performance reports for public programmes are published on the internet, there is an unwillingness to reveal performance information. The publication of capability reviews is to be welcomed.

Government has shown that it can learn from crisis. Examples include the handling of
the second Foot and Mouth crisis, and the development of the Flood Warnings Direct
system… The message that failure can be tolerated if difficulties are managed well,
learnt from, and projects stopped once it is clear they will not work, needs to reach all staff, because risk aversion and fear of failure are major impediments to innovation…

“Innovation involves trying new things, some of which ultimately will not work. So
experimentation is necessary, but with public money at stake, government needs to be able to halt ineffective activities quickly and learn lessons from them.”

Computer Weekly has campaigned for several years for Gateway reviews to be published, with limited success.

The PAC report draws attention to IT-based projects, including the NPfIT and the C-Nomis project for the prisons service, which it says have been affected by a lack of the right skills.

“Failure to put in place the right project managementskills and governance affected the delivery of other projects reviewedby the Committee including the National Programme for IT in the NHS andthe Bowman radio communication system.

“It is a positive sign that more expertise is being brought intogovernment, but internal expertise needs to be built up too. Things gowrong where unsuitably skilled staff are brought in to run acontractual relationship, or where they abdicate responsibility toprivate sector contractors.

“There is no substitute for building up the learning and experience ofin-house managers so that they can manage projects and the risksassociated with them, and get the best from external contractors.”

Links:

Today’s Public Accounts Committee report – House of Commons website

Publicservice.co.uk has a summary of the PAC report. 

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