How to stop government departments from flouting the basics of project management

Advice was once given to school examinees by a jovial examiner: "Do not on any account attempt to write on both sides of the...

Advice was once given to school examinees by a jovial examiner: "Do not on any account attempt to write on both sides of the paper at once."

The equivalent in blindingly obvious advice for central government departments on how to prepare for and manage IT projects would be: ask the end-users at an early stage how they think they are likely to access and use a system, and act on what they say; do not go live with a system unless you are convinced it is fit for purpose; do not ignore the warnings of key stakeholders before going live; and do not set too little time to do too much. Finally, if all else fails, have a well-rehearsed fall-back plan in case the system does not meet expectations.

Obvious though these maxims are, every one of them was ignored, circumvented, flouted or simply not fully appreciated when the Criminal Records Bureau, run by the Passport and Records Agency, prepared for and implemented systems that caused serious operational problems when they went live.

The idea of the systems was to widen access to criminal records, so that employers could check a job applicant's background if the work entailed contact with children or vulnerable adults. But a report by public spending watchdog the National Audit Office found that the backlog of applications for checks was so great at one point that some staff were employed before it was known whether they had a criminal history, and as a result had to be closely supervised.

The audit office report - impressive in the thoroughness of its research and the detail of its findings - found that the design of the system seemed to be based more on assumption than listening to key stakeholders and end-users. There was an assumption, for example, that between 70% and 85% of customers would apply for checks to be made by phone rather than paper. So the systems installed by supplier Capita - and the business processes - were designed around the use of a call centre. In fact, 80% of applications were in paper form - but data entry screens had not been designed for the keying in from paper forms. There was consultation with end-users, but initially it was inadequate and fed false assumptions.

It also emerged that three months before the system was due to go live, there was no solid plan for a model office and pilot. The go-live date was rescheduled and, before go-live, a Gateway review of the project was undertaken by the Office of Government Commerce. It raised a series of concerns but, incredibly, the reviewers accepted that there was "now no turning back" and recognised that on balance the operational launch would go ahead "given the confusion and bad publicity that would result from delay".Ê

We do not believe that a fear of bad publicity should have been a material factor in the decision of Gateway reviewers to endorse the department's decision to go live.

The publication of the NAO report is timely, as it reinforces recommendations made by Computer Weekly this week to the Work and Pensions subcommittee, which is investigating IT best practice.

In an effort to improve the rate of success of central government IT projects, we have recommended two things in particular: that best practice is enshrined in legislation, as has already happened in the US with the Clinger-Cohen Act. We also want independent Gateway reviews on the progress of major projects to be published. In the case of the Criminal Records Bureau, publication of the Gateway report would have alerted all interested parties to the potential for serious operational difficulties and perhaps altered the outcome.

We expect both of these ideas to meet considerable opposition in officialdom. Heads of central departments can be expected to resist instinctively any outside pressure to make them more accountable.

But there is clearly a pressing need both for radical steps to tighten controls over departments and for assessors and reviewers of projects to make decisions that will stand the test of scrutiny by Parliament and the media - or the NAO will be writing similar reports ad infinitum.

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