Senior Responsible Owner - a good idea subverted

In 2000 the then Cabinet Office minister Ian McCartney, with the help of Intellect, the suppliers’ association, published a worthy guide on how to avoid IT-related failures.

The guide – successful IT – recommended that one accountable individual should supervise a project. That person should be called the Senior Responsible Owner.

It was a good idea, a corrective to flawed custom. Too often senior civil servants retired or were moved off projects as they began to understand its complexities. A senior responsible owner would see a project through from the time it was conceived to the point that the benefits became tangible.

The McCartney report said that reviews of successful IT projects in Singapore had found that in every case the scheme was sponsored by a senior manager, who was held accountable for its success.

But the McCartney recommendations have become, in the main, a tick-box exercise. Leon Trotsky said that ideas that enter the mind under fire remain there securely and for ever. At the other extreme, there is the Office of Government Office which doffs its hat and asks those running departments and agencies whether they would, if they wouldn’t mind, consider taking seriously the idea of senior responsible ownership.

And so, this is what has happened since the McCartney report was published:

– The Office of Government Commerce, which is part of the Treasury and which oversees good practice, complaisantly asked departments and agencies to appoint senior responsible owners of IT projects.

– Sir Humphrey shuddered involuntarily at the idea of one person being held accountable for any IT-related failure.

– Expediency or self-serving reactionism prodded the heads of some departments and agencies to appoint, as senior responsible owners, civil servants who were due to leave or retire before the project had been completed.

– The SCOPE project being run by the Cabinet Office on behalf of the intelligence services and government departments became an exemplar of opaque accountability. The Scope project was supposed to mark the end of paper-based intelligence reports. But Scope was delayed for several years for many reasons. Just as the project was due to reach its most critical stage – the roll out across and defence and intelligence communities – the project’s Senior Responsible Owner, Sir Richard Mottram, announced his retirement from the civil service. So Scope will have a new Senior Responsible Owner, before it is due for completion.

– The NHS’s National Programme for IT [NPfIT] has had a variety of senior responsible owners. Sir John Pattison was on the point of retirement when he was appointed as senior responsible owner. Since then, 2002, there have been multiple senior responsible owners of the NPfIT: Professor Aidan Halligan, John Bacon, Sir Ian Carruthers, Richard Jeavons, Richard Granger and David Nicholson to name only a few.

– The Department of Health has this year appointed more than 100 senior responsible owners for parts of the NPfIT.

– The National Audit Office found last year that “75 per cent of Senior Responsible Owners spent a minority of their time on their role” (paragraph 2.12 of NAO report).

– The same report found that “53 per cent of Senior Responsible Owners of mission critical and high risk programmes and projects are in their first Senior Responsible Owner role” (paragraph 2.14 of NAO report).

– Some 13–23 per cent of Senior Responsible Owners had not used relevant guidance of the Office of Government Commerce (Figure 9, paragraph 3.29 of NAO report).

The report of the Cabinet Office did not propose multiple senior responsible owners; indeed that would have been a repudiation of the whole idea.

The report said:

“Personal ownership is further encouraged by ensuring that the identity of the Senior Responsible Owner is the same throughout the term of the project or changes only when a distinct phase has been completed.”

It also emphasised the importance of authority residing in one person.

It said:

“There are many examples where ‘multiple’ or ‘committee’ ownership of a project has diluted accountability, diffused authority and led to slower, less responsive decision-making. To be effective, authority must rest, and be seen to rest, with one individual.”

It also said:

“Crucially, a senior responsible owner should be ready to recommend that a project be abandoned or changed fundamentally, if necessary.”

How many senior responsible owners of large and complex projects, spending less than 50% of their time on their SRO roles, would, even if it were necessary, recommend a project be abandoned or changed fundamentally?

I suggest that reality makes nonsense of some of the best recommendations in the McCartney report, at least those on the all-important role of the senior responsible owner.


Cabinet Office report – Successful IT – Modernising government in action

Anti-terror system is up to five years late

National Audit Office report on successful IT projects which includes a survey of senior responsible owners

Office of Government Commerce website – the role of senior responsible owner

Role of the senior responsible owner in the Ministry of Defence

Message off target – Guardian article five years after the McCartney report