Who will stay the course in the ID card bidding race?

The debate over the ID cards and register took new turns this week with leaks over the nature of the “incremental approach” and reports of major suppliers losing interest in bidding for a big centralised scheme.

Yesterday I sat in on discussion on the need for a coherent and constructive approach to Identity Management (including but not necessarily driven by, Government) at which the first question was “why did Accenture and BAE withdraw?” The next question was “why had rest not yet done so?”. My flip response was “because they have not yet done the sums” – but I then thought back to my days at ICL (just over thirty years ago) when I ended up as Sector Comptroller for Public Corporations Sector: with responsibility for contract vetting and “risk reduction” – before leaving the industry for five years.

As the only Sector Comptroller who had been an information systems professional, I was occasionally loaned to other sectors to look at those contracts which worried the Managing Director, let alone the Finance Director.

The most lucrative single contract that resulted was a hopelessly over-ambitious, bleeding edge, integrated public procurement that was doomed (even if we could make the technology work) because the most of the applications and locations to be served were already doomed. But no-one could admit this until the Minister finally gave up fighting the Chancellor at a time of deteriorating public finance for the subsidies also needed to preserve the plants and jobs.

I recommended we promise the earth in return for an unrefundable up-front payment, in advance of the detailed procurement, to be used to train a world class implementation team – including on the customer side. The project evaporated, amidst profuse apologies from the customer, just as the training programme was commencing. Nonetheless, we were still better able to staff our other projects, including with the cream of those made redundant by the customer.

Time has moved on and next week I have to write 2,500 words on “Why do we never learn?”.

Ross Anderson gave part of the answer at the excellent Government 2.0 seminar organised by the Oxford Internet Institute and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology earlier this week ( I will blog on this with links to the proceedings when they are.available on-line).

Too many large consultancies and suppliers still make far too much money out of the naivety of public sector procurers.

And why are the procurers so naive?

Because most of the senior responsible owners have never done it before and will have moved on before the procurement is complete, let alone before implementation begins.

Hence the critical need for a massive and ongoing programme of professional training for those in central government (currently in post as well as on the way up), covering the customer side of programme and project management and service delivery: not just IT skills.

Perhaps those who are still in the bidding race believe that Ministers and politcal advisors have finally learned that lesson and will allow the professionals to do their job properly – once they have staff in post with the necessary skills to be competent customers.

Or perhaps the suppliers are using the opportunity to train a new generation of implementation staff to handle the challenge of transitioning the UK public sector, as a whole, to secure identity management and information sharing routines that will inter-operate with those of the private sector as well as with each other.

Perhaps even both are happening.

I like to be optimistic occassionally.

P.S. Click here to the OII/POST Government 2.0 proceedings as recorded.

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Well, "coherent" in Government-speak means "do as I say" and "constructive" means either "we don't know how to do it" or "don't tell us not to do it".

As for "why do we never learn?", so much has been written on this over the years, from the Standish Group CHAOS report of 1994/5 through to the NAO/OGC and POST reports of 2002 & 2003, and including the famous "Cobb's Paradox" - "We know why projects fail, we know how to prevent their failure -- so why do they still fail?" The answer can be summarized in a single word: "people".

You can train people in how to prepare, procure and manage projects well, but you can't train their political masters not to ask the impossible or change their mind before, during and after implementation. They, too, haven't been through it before and won't do so again. You also can't motivate staff to embrace a project they know is intended to downsize their department or which they feel will be just as bad as the last "big project".

Yet, interestingly, there is significant recent research to suggest that not only are the people elements of big projects unpredictable (as any half-way decent manager already knows) but that the technology and its implementation and use are also not as predictable as has traditionally been assumed.

New theories and appreciations of risk are emerging that overturn much of the conventional wisdom on IT project management. One of the central themes of this new thinking is another paradox: the more you attempt to define, measure and manage large IT projects, the less control you actually have and the more likely it is the project will not achieve its intended goal.

As for public IT project procurements, I can do no better than to recommend the fascinating, if sometimes hard-going, book by Patrick Dunleavy, et al, "Digital Era Governance" (OUP, 2006). One of its key conclusions from surveying procurement in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the USA is that "The greater the power of the IT industry, the less effective the performance of Government IT has been" and citing the UK as the worst example of the problem.

Where do you begin? There are so many vested interests with no incentive to challenge the unsatisfactory status quo. To do my "twenty years ago" story, government was then better able to be an intelligent customer thanks to the efforts of the undervalued CCTA, through which I obtained my entree into Government IT. With its demise, the rate and scale of project failures began to rise.

I don't think there is any substitute for being an intelligent customer. If you don't know what you want, don't know how to describe it and can't tell if what's offered is what you want or not, you can't complain about what you get.

May I recommend the following to any chief executive considering bidding for work on this project now clearly in a persistent vegetative state -- A risk assessment for prospective suppliers to the UK NIS.

May I recommend the following to any chief executive considering bidding for work on this project, now clearly in a persistent vegetative state -- A risk assessment for prospective suppliers to the UK NIS.