Cabinet Office must get tough

This week the Treasury admitted there are "systemic problems" with government IT projects. Tony Collins asks what can be done to...

This week the Treasury admitted there are "systemic problems" with government IT projects. Tony Collins asks what can be done to prevent disasters and improve the public sector's reputation for getting it wrong.

Better guidelines and advice will not prevent IT disasters. This was the first, and so far unheeded, message that Computer Weekly gave to the IT supplier's trade association, the Computing Services & Software Association (CSSA), when it asked for this newpaper's comments on how to avoid IT disasters.

"What is needed," our briefing paper to the CSSA continued, "are tough decisions and direct language, and the ability to listen to warnings that are 'off message'."

The conclusion of Computer Weekly's briefing paper was that the Cabinet Office, which was being advised by the CSSA on avoiding IT failures, should not issue more recommendations.

"In themselves, recommendations are ineffective," we said. "For more than 20 years, the civil service has published recommendations on improving the management of computer projects. The need is for genuinely independent assessments and tough decisions. The danger with recommendations alone is that they may be perceived as taking action without achieving anything."

We went on to suggest a small number of key actions that could circumvent some of the deep-set cultural problems, such as lack of individual account and openness, that afflict many public sector projects.

A few weeks after this was written, however, Cabinet Office minister Ian McCartney went on to announce a new set of recommendations.

"McCartney announces blitz on IT project problems," read the headline of the government press release. "Cabinet Office report contains 30 recommendations to drive up performance".

Alex Allan, government e-envoy, was appointed to oversee implementation of the Cabinet Office report, which was called Successful IT - Modernising Government in Action.

Allan welcomed the CSSA's parallel study, Getting IT right for Government, and remarked that the results of the research would "not be left on the shelves of Whitehall to gather dust. All recommendations set out actions, owners and key delivery dates, and I will work with departments to ensure that this comprehensive report makes a real difference."

So far, there is little hard evidence that the CSSA's comprehensive report on avoiding IT project problems has, or will, make any significant difference.

There is also no evidence that the CSSA or the Cabinet Office lack the resolve to make tough decisions or force through major changes. The question is whether they have the power to do so.

It could be said that one reason the Cabinet Office is creating committees, forums, and issuing more guidelines and recommendations, rather than making tough decisions on problem projects, is that this is all it can do, despite its best intentions.

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman this week said, "We cannot impose our will on departments. We can make suggestions but it is up to the departments how they respond."

It is the Cabinet Office and the Treasury's newly-formed Office of Government Commerce that have been given the responsibility of preventing further disasters and putting current problem projects on the track to success.

But observers of Cabinet Office routine over the past decade have noted that its lack of power leads to civil servants writing press releases that make its ministers only appear to be tough and innovative.

In the Conservative administration, the Cabinet Office wrote a series of ministerial press releases, reported widely in the media, that said an initiative called market testing - checking in-house IT costs against general market prices - had saved hundreds of millions of pounds. When closely examined, it became apparent that the savings had not been achieved but were "anticipated".

When the Cabinet Office was asked by Computer Weekly what independent assessments of specific IT projects it has commissioned, and what IT schemes have been cancelled, curtailed, or revised to deliver the intended benefits, we were given a list of the "action that has been taken so far".

This includes "interim guidance on the role and responsibilities of the Senior Responsible Owner" of IT projects, a "skills toolkit" to identify gaps in IT skills in departments, work on "further documents and guidance on best practice", a seminar on "understanding of the dimensions of risk in the context projects" and "discussions with departments and agencies on their plans for implementing" the Cabinet Office's recommendations.

This is a far cry from the actions that were suggested in Computer Weekly's briefing paper.

Our main finding was that the UK Government should set up a financial auditing organisation similar to the General Accounting Office in the US that, unlike its UK equivalent, the National Audit Office, has the power to audit IT projects and contracts before they are signed. It can stop or curtail projects or contracts, and follow through afterwards with reports that show no deference to departmental sensitivities. In the UK, the National Audit Office is restrained by having to agree the facts of its reports with the department before publication, leading sometimes to prolonged semantic debate about what is factual.

This week, at a packed meeting at the CSSA's headquarters in London on the association's plans to take forward its report and the parallel study by the Cabinet Office, Computer Weekly was thanked informally for its contribution. Indeed, the CSSA's report includes many of the specific points we made.

Peter Gershon, chief executive of the Office of Government Commerce, said there had been important developments: departments can now re-invest savings from IT projects to fund other initiatives. "This has not existed in the government system before," he said.

He added that there is a ministerial recognition that "projects are coming in late and over cost".

But rather than any specific actions, the Office of Government Commerce announced that it is sponsoring a "senior forum between Government and the IT industry".

A cynic may say that if words speak louder than actions, prepare to be deafened.

Computer Weekly's messages to the CSSA

Five key messages in Computer Weekly's briefing paper to the Computing Services & Software Association:

  • Tough decisions cannot be taken by committee: named individuals must be accountable

  • Openness is the first casualty of a project in trouble. Civil servants must tell ministers what they do not want to hear about a project's progress

  • Do not expect suppliers to tell the whole truth. Those that do will not win the contract

  • Nobody running a problem project wants an independent appraisal. Therefore, regular independent appraisals are essential

  • Split large projects into small phases that may or may not integrate with the whole. Forcing together chunks of projects that refuse to be integrated is a major cause of disasters.

    Read our recommendations in full.

  • Read more on IT project management