Government IT: report ignores accountability factor

A report - Successful IT: Modernising Government in Action - fails to tackle the problems of accountability that dog Whitehall...

A report - Successful IT: Modernising Government in Action - fails to tackle the problems of accountability that dog Whitehall IT projects

The Cabinet Office report on government IT projects is the most important strategy document of its kind for decades. Its recommendations summarise the best practice in project management, review and accountability. But they remain just that - recommendations.

For all the prominence given to the newly formed Office of Government Commerce in implementing the report, the agencies charged with holding Whitehall to account remain toothless.

The report - Successful IT: Modernising Government in Action - has embraced the "modular and incremental" approach of project management methodologies like Prince 2.

It insists on a "buck stops here" management structure and a formal approach to risk management. If followed, these recommendations will bring the best of private-sector project management into government.

But there is very little mandatory in the report. And as far as supplier relationships are concerned, its calls for "open dialogue" and "realistic plans" reflect the powerful hold the top 10 outsourcing suppliers have over their public-sector customers.

The report makes nomination of senior responsible owners for projects obligatory. That is good, but was it wise to nominate e-envoy Alex Allan as the ultimate SRO?

Allan - for all his drive and talent - is not a minister. Like all "Tsars" his powers in Whitehall are limited. He is set to deliver late on the Government's 60-point e-business tick list, so asking him to set right 30 years of Whitehall IT incompetence as well looks like a tall order.

Computer Weekly told the Cabinet Office review that there should be an independent project watchdog along the lines of the US General Accounting Office. The GAO has the power to audit projects before they start, and it can step in and cancel projects - and does not have to agree its reports with departments in advance. Neither the National Audit Office nor the newly formed Office of Government Commerce have these regulatory powers.

The report creates a whole series of hoops for government departments to jump through before a major IT project can be approved. But front-loading the project with safeguards is the easy part. The hard part is having the courage and the clout to remedy problems half-way through.

The recommendations on supplier relationships are probably the weakest part of the report. The report ignores the central problem: Whitehall customers have consistently refused to dump failing suppliers, and impose the penalties they are due by right. The problem is compounded with PFI, where intellectual property reverts to the supplier if the contract is cancelled; creating the certainty that the supplier can never be sacked.

Suppliers that can't be penalised and officials who are never called to account: this is the ultimate cause of government IT disasters.

Until the Government shows it is prepared to mandate, as opposed to recommend, all the Prince 2 training in the world will not set this right.

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