SRO changes threaten project success - and the NPfIT has had 6

A useful short report on the lessons learned from Gateway reviews of high and medium-risk projects and programmes was published last week by the Office of Government Commerce.

It’s one in a series and focuses on the role of the senior responsible owner. If a project fails, MPs on the public accounts committee are likely to blame the SRO, as they did on the C-Nomis project for prisons.

What the OGC says bodes ill for the NHS National Programme for IT which has had (so far) six overall senior responsible owners. The OGC says:

“One of the major concerns expressed by the National Audit Office, Parliamentary Accounts Committee, and the OGC is the rate of turnover of SROs. The average duration in post for the biggest projects is around 18 months, whereas most projects last between 3 and 10 years.

“There is a clear correlation between continuity of SRO and high delivery confidence of projects, so high turnover represents a serious threat to the success of projects.”

“Departments should appoint a Senior Responsible Owner [SRO] at the outset of an IT-enabled business change on the presumption that he or she will remain in post until the programme or project is delivered, with performance and reward linked to agreed targets and milestones.”

The overall NPfIT SRO is David Nicholson who has been in the role for more than two years. He is also Chief Executive of the NHS, which is one of the world’s five biggest organisations, so he can devote a very limited amount of time to the SRO role.

The succession of SROs of the NPfIT means that Nicholson is far removed from any meaningful accountability for the programme, the big mistakes having been made in early 2002, years before his appointment.

When the NPfIT was launched in 2002, its first senior responsible owner was the avuncular Sir John Pattison. Then came deputy chief medical officer Professor Aidan Halligan who was impressively perceptive when speaking, with humour, about what needed to be done to tackle weaknesses in the programme such as the lack of support from doctors and nurses. He shared the SRO role with the then head of the NPfIT, Richard Granger.

Halligan was in the NPfIT SRO role for less than a year. Then came ex-health authority chief executive Alan Burns.

Then, on 15 March 2005, the board of the national programme was informed by John Bacon that “he had become overall SRO for the National Programme for IT and that this fitted well with his main role as Delivery Group Director responsible for performance management of the NHS”.

In 2006 it was the turn of Sir Ian Carruthers who was acting Chief Executive of the NHS.

By 2007 David Nicholson was in the part-time role.

The OGC warns about SROs who “spend less than 20% of their time on such duties”.

In June 2007 Robin Guenier wrote a letter to the Prime Minister – to no avail – on how the NPfiT should have a full-time SRO.

If the OGC’s executives want their guidance to be followed on small and medium-sized projects, how do they feel about the turnover of overall SROs on the UK’s biggest IT programme?

There again the NPfIT is a marathon with no finishing line. Why would any SRO want to be imprisoned in a project which has no end?

Either something is wrong with the idea of having one SRO overseeing a project from start to finish, or something is wrong with the idea of launching a project so large and complex that it has no defined end.


Poisoned chalice fear of SROs – Computer Weekly

Lessons learnt from Gateway reviews  – OGC website

Robin Guenier’s letter to the PM

Carruthers becomes fifth SRO for NHS IT programme – E-Health Insider

What went wrong with the NPfIT – the NHS blog

Senior Responsible Owner – a good idea subverted – IT Projects blog

Cut public projects to reduce spending – Institute of Directors