Why governments are persuaded to invest in big high-risk projects - one theory.

A senior executive at a large IT company has given an insight into the things suppliers say to ministers when selling big technology-based schemes to the public sector. Their highly effective arguments have changed little over the decades: the public sector must be adventurous to be world-beating; and that it should be as easy to transact with a government department as it is to buy an airline ticket.

Two things are lost in these arguments: why it is necessary for the UK’s public sector to try to be world-beating, whatever “world-beating” means, and there are big differences in public and private IT-based projects.

Private companies have control over their budgets, their workforces and over complexity: they have the power to simplify business processes before or during IT-based modernisation. And they understand that a shortage of the right managerial skills should stop at conception an overly ambitious scheme.

Also private companies do not have to contend with ever changing legislation and ministerial targets that keep specifications fluid. Most importantly they have a very limited capacity for pouring good money after bad.


Putting these limitations aside, some of those who run large IT companies have the view that governments must carry on taking risks and not be put off by inevitable failures.

These views were expressed at a roundtable discussion by a senior executive at a large IT company, one of the government’s major suppliers. It would be unfair to name him because his views are common among his peers.

Some of his remarks at the roundtable are summarised below and my subjective responses follow in square brackets.

The subject of the debate was how IT can influence the modernising of society.

Supplier executive:

“I was asked last week to go to Hong Kong to an e-government summit. While I was there I met the chief information officer CIO of Singapore and the CIO Taiwan. What struck me was how much they are looking to the UK to learn how to do things [they wait for the UK to make mistakes other countries can learn from].

“They are way ahead with some technologies but, in terms of how they transform that into delivery of citizen-centric services, they are light years behind [they’re pushing forward with technology in general but in the public sector they’re wary about gambling money on overly risky schemes]

“We really must not lose our appetite for taking risks [needs no response].

“We must get over the hurdles [critics]. I appreciate that sometimes things will fail, but that cannot be a proxy for saying that we cannot do anything…On the point that technology enables radical reorganisation of how we do things, the genie is out of the bottle. [Thank goodness governments don’t listen to their critics].

“People want to be able to deal with government in the same way they deal with Tesco or Ocado, online gambling or anything else they want to do [To compare the complexity of operations at Tesco and Ocado with the way big government departments work is to compare the readily understandable with the almost incomprehensible].

“Actually, we are not far off being able to deliver it. [?] People need to get off the sidelines, stop throwing rocks at it and get involved in making it work [let government spend the money it wants without challenge].

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There is one other major difference between private projects and government projects. When a company screws up, it risks losing business. When a government screws up, citizens don't have a choice to go elsewhere (or at least, most don't). It's not like farmers can say to the rural payments agency "We're taking our business elsewhere".

Voting is the closest thing to customer feedback, but effective management of IT projects is not on the average voter's agenda. Perhaps that's because they believe that government IT projects inevitably fail, or because they don't see how vital IT is to positive and effective change within the public sector.

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One problem with the way government tends to do IT projects is the approach of trying to fix everything in one go, rather than a little at a time. It's the old waterfall development mentality that says that changes later in a project become prohibitively expensive, so everything has to be designed up front and at the very end you hand it over to the customer.

The volatility of public sector policy demands that any realistic approach has to be one that acknowledges the need to change, and the need to be able to change at any time and at minimum cost. It's the whole 'lean manufacturing' issue for software... agile development and all that. Involve the customer throughout: deploy early and deploy often.

One problem with long term agile development of course, is how you fit that into the current public sector procurement models.

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The problem with any govt project seems to be the same (the Dome, Wembley, the Olympics).

People employed on it take it as an opportunity to direct as much money their way as they can.

Thats it.

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