The trouble with government IT projects - Colin Beveridge

Colin Beveridge of the Better Practice Forum has sent these comments on our coverage of the Downing Street papers on the National Programme for IT – NPfIT. His comments refer also to some other government IT initiatives.

“Well done to CW for finally extracting this information, which confirms only too well what we have known from the outset: the initiative was positioned as an IT project, rather than the Information Systems initiative that was really required.


“Sadly this happens far too often with Government initiatives. Technology is seen to be the answer, when systems (including technology) are really required.

“For too many people the terms IT and Information Systems are interchangable, wherein lies the root of many problems.

“An Information System comprises people, process, organisation and technology. Messrs Blair and Brown have been firm believers in New Technology, hence ‘IT projects’.

“So something like the NHS Programme for IT begins as an IT project, rather than an Information Systems initiative, by bringing in technologists (such as Microsoft) and consultancies comfortable with technology. It is usually all downhill from that point because the people, process and organisation become subsidiary to the technology, rather than using the technology to support the process and people.

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Article by Colin Beveridge for Computer Weekly in 2007:

We regularly hear “there is no such thing as an IT project, only business initiatives.”

But we don’t need to look far to find business initiatives being managed as IT projects.

The UK public sector is ripe with examples, such as the NHS Programme for IT, Medical Training Application Scheme (MTAS), Identity Cards, Farm Payment Scheme etc. etc.

Apart from the obvious combination of Government and IT project, each of these high-profile initiatives has two common themes: disappointment and unexpected cost.

We ignore this at our peril and we must ask why this still happens. Aren’t we getting

better at IT?

Well the fact is that we are getting better at IT but the never ending series of

expensive cock-ups shows that we are clearly not getting any better at managing

change.

Of course, IT is not to blame, not the primary culprit for any failure. But poor selection and application of technology are crippling symptoms of a much bigger problem – our overwhelming subservience to the prevailing IT paradigm.

IT has become the be all and end all for far too many people. We call ourselves IT

professionals; our magazines and newspapers deal exclusively in IT terms and far too many business interactions are predicated on the mistaken belief that IT needs to get closer to the business.

In my view, IT and business are already too close for comfort. Too close because the

narrow focus on IT invariably neglects the broader nature of the overlying information systems, at great detriment to our ability to achieve effective information systems.

Of course, IT is a vital part of a modern system but by no means represents the whole recipe. After all, if you baked a cake with flour alone, your customers would not thank you for the results, they would rightly ask: what happened to the eggs, butter and sugar, do you expect me to eat this crumby mess?

To be honest, that is exactly what I think is happening with many of our so-called IT

projects, we are forgetting to put in the proper ingredients. An information system needs much more than dollops of technology, it needs proper proportions of people, organisation, process and data. Technology isn’t quite the icing on the cake but it should be measured in similar terms, if we want to achieve palatable results.

To deliver true value we need a whole new outlook, based holistically on information

systems, not just information technology. A new IS paradigm will be a natural step, marking further progress in our evolutionary journey from the earlier paradigms of computing, data processing and IT.

We need to break free from the hobbles of the IT paradigm and start talking seriously

about IS instead.

Links:

What Blair, Microsoft and Cisco said at Downing St meeting on NHS reform

National Programme for IT – act in haste repent at leisure

Was NPfIT agreed before Downing St meeting?

What officials promised Tony Blair on an IT-led modernisation of the NHS

Only a third of government IT projects succeed

Latest OMB watch list of troubled Federal IT projects has 227 entries

Challenges with large IT projects continue

Why big government IT projects fail

Microsoft to brief trust chief executives

National Audit Office to publish 2nd report on NHS National Programme for IT

The Better Practice Forum

Secret Downing Street papers reveal Tony Blair rushed NHS IT

Secret Downing Street papers reveal Tony Blair rushed NHS IT – longer article

More than £4bn spent on the National Programme for IT – NPfIT – by April 2008

Who was at Downing St NPfIT meeting?

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