Government must learn lessons of IT failure

The Government has some lessons to learn if its IT roll-outs are to have more success, writes Mike Simon

The Government has some lessons to learn if its IT roll-outs are to have more success, writes Mike Simon

Taxpayers are paying a heavy price for the repeated failure of government IT projects according to a report from Parliament's Public Accounts Committee.

The publication summarises the lessons of 25 reports on government IT published by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the National Audit Office (NAO) over the last decade.

David Davis, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said project failures in the Government's £7bn-plus IT spend, "have impaired the ability of public bodies to do their job properly, to manage and develop their businesses, and to use effectively and account for public funds for which they are responsible".

Davis also warned "the failure to deliver IT projects successfully jeopardises the Government's programme of Modernising Government".

Ian McCartney, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, welcomed the report and, despite this summer's debacles at the Passport Office and Immigration Service, said the Government was now "effectively tackling many of the issues raised".

Tony Blair charged McCartney with heading a comprehensive review of government IT projects last October. He claimed many of the project difficulties highlighted by the committee were the fault of previous Conservative governments.

"Much has been done to straighten past problems," he said, promising, "This work will be strengthened by the launch of the Government's first-ever corporate IT strategy in March."

Simons Hughes, Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman, whose parliamentary questions last month led the government to detail continuing IT delays and cost overruns at the Home Office, was less confident.

"The Public Accounts Committee members must be weary of exposing the same problems again and again," said Hughes. "Ian McCartney says ministers are listening and lessons will be applied. We will hold him to that pledge."

Jonathan Baume, general secretary of the Association of First Division Civil Servants, which represents Whitehall's most senior civil servants, welcomed many of the report's recommendations.

However, he said, "the Public Accounts Committee has cited 25 examples of problems with government IT projects. Given the size, complexity and sheer volume of public sector IT projects, I don't believe this represents a worse track record than that of the private sector".

Baume added, "The poor ethical, consumer care and technical standards of the IT industry itself are a fundamental part of the problem."

Politicians, civil servants and the IT industry may not be able to agree who is to blame for the sorry state of so many government IT projects, but Baume has a pretty direct line on preventing future problems.

"The simplest solution to ensure projects come in on time, within budget, and fully functional must be to refuse to pay any money to suppliers and manufacturers until this has been shown to be the case," he said.

Whether politicians or Baume's members in Whitehall's corridors of power have the guts to suggest such a thing is another question.

  • Improving the delivery of Government IT projects is available from the Committee of Public Accounts, The Stationery Office, priced £8
  • The public Accounts Commitee's key recommendations

    Inception and design of projects

  • Major IT systems cannot be introduced in isolation. Departments should analyse and understand fully the implications of new systems.
  • Departments must consider carefully the scale and complexity of projects to assess whether they are acheivable. Step-by-step progresion of linked projects will often be a suitable approach.
  • Project specifications should take into account the business needs of the organisation and the requirements of the user. Desirable, but not essential, features should be kept out of the specification.
  • Managing Projects

  • Senior management must ensure there is clarity about the aims and objectives of major projects and clear criteria against which success can be judged.
  • The development of high quality management skills is essential.
  • Departments must pay attention to the management of risk. Without contingency plans, departments run the risk of being unable to deliver services.
  • Relationships with suppliers

  • Contracts between departments and suppliers must be clearly set out
  • Without a good relationship between departments and suppliers it is unlikely that suppliers will understand the requirements, or that they will pass this understanding on to the team delivering the system
  • Departments should minimise changes to specifications after they have signed contracts
  • Post implementation issues

  • Departments should review the success of projects quickly, so that lessons can be fed back
  • Sufficient time and resources should be spent on ensuring staff can use the IT system
  • Read more on IT project management