Minister under fire for putting the brakes on a project that was off the rails

Which is better – that Ministers intervene when a project is clearly off the rails, or that they do not? 

Over the past few years I have compared and contrasted the DWP with the National Plan for IT in Health Service on several occassions.  The decision of the Minister to support Howard Shiplee in imposing good programme practice, after his previous attempt had failed with the death of Philip Langdale, should be welcomed by all serious Information systems professionals.

It contrasted with previous Health Service ministers’ expectations that Richard Granger would be able to successfully bring in massive consultant specified programmes based on neither consultations nor pilots – and their steadfast refusal to face reality.

I thought the Minister did well this morning on the Today programme  against a fluster-bluster attack from James Naughtie. I was impressed as he patiently tried to explain that instead of going for volume implementation followed by tidy up, they would be piloting with limited numbers, so as to test the system with real human beings before going for volume. In consequence they expected to meet the original  timescale, except for those on sickness benefits who need personal assessment.  Separating out the most complex part of the implementation made eminent sense – particularly given what has happened to date.  

I also liked the separation of the Cabinet Office ideas for a web-based front end from the heavy lifting systems to run the benefits. It is an obvious way of turning to advantage what might otherwise have been a counter-productive stand-off between two contrasting approaches to systems delivery. The reality is that a big change programme needs BOTH, but in different areas and with good (including robust and secure) interfaces between.

The question of the responsibility for how we got to where we are, with both DWP and NHS IT, including decisions to implement political “visions” via massive contracts for high risk, grandiose “delayed big bang” top down systems instead of low risk  incremental change programmes within flexible contractual frameworks, is another matter.  I have refered to some of thsoe who are to blame at the tail end of my other blog today on the power of misinformation. But must stop here and get off to my first meeting of the day (on how to set about rebuilding our skills frameworks for the 21st century).  

In the mean time I would conclude by saying that blaming the minister for slamming on the brakes before the train crash is not the best way of helping improve the quality of delivery across the public sector.   

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