Why do we never learn? - The key to successful delivery

Earlier this year I was asked to update a presentation that I did five years ago on why all the guidance material on how to deliver complex systems to time and budget is commonly ignored. The result, edited to remove a little of the more intemperate vitriol, is now published.


The theme for the Spring 2008 edition of “Transformation: promoting new thinking in the public sector” is “Managing Large Scale Projects” and carries several interesting case studies and an interview with John Suffolk, as well as my piece. It is published jointly by the National School of Government and Capgemini and can be downloaded free from the Cap Gemini website .

The key difference between the public and private sectors is not that government systems need to be inherently larger or more complex but that in the private sector the successful implmentation of a change programme is not only well-rewarded but is one of the common routes to the top. In consequence, many of those at the top have personal experience of what is entailed – unlike most of those at the top of central government.

I would not go so far as to say that all else follows from that, but that difference lies at the core of the common public sector failure to learn from the past – in the fond belief that this time round a new generation of even more expensive consultants and contractors will use new technologies to successfully deliver the ill-conceived or impossible.

In the private sector those facing global compeition can no longer afford to try to conceal problems, as opposed to earning reputations for acting fast to resolve them. The main reason why the public sector has not followed suit is that those who draft clever policies using fashionable technology to address the problem of the day are promoted to repeat their mistakes elsewhere.

More-over, as soon as the Secretary of State has announced a new initiative in response to the latest press and media campaign, the doctrine of ministerial infallibiity comes into play: the implementation programme has to be justified and defended at almost any cost, until such time as a new minister can quietly announce that technology changes demand or enable a new approach.

Until then confusion and conflict over the actual objectives and priorities and split responsibility for policy and implementaiton mean that no one knows what success looks like or is responsible for delivery, from policy formation to live-running delivery. Everyone can therefore receive performance bonuses, almost regardless of perceived success of failure.

Please read the full article.

I first delivered the analysis to an audience of civil servants five years ago and instead of shocked silence got close to a standing ovation. It was most gratifying to be asked to update it, by people who judgement I respect, for the National School of Government I took the request as a sign that government thinking, from the very top, has indeed moved on and the days of initiativitis are all but over.

However, when I said that to an old friend he pointed out the pigs flying past the window and, more seriously, reminded me of the need to ensure that new generations of web 2.0 enthusiasts did not get delusions of grandeur – as with the “overhead light” London Ambulance System that used the latest, low cost technology to bring the service to its knees.

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