Is Gateway the route to public sector IT success?

Few public sector IT announcements have been more significant than the decision to make the Office of Government Commerce's (OGC)...

Few public sector IT announcements have been more significant than the decision to make the Office of Government Commerce's (OGC) Gateway Review process mandatory for all central government IT projects.

Mike Simons

The method it proposes offers the best chance yet of preventing future high-profile IT disasters like those that hit the Passport Office, Immigration and Nationality Directorate and other recent projects.

Ian McCartney, the minister for e-government, said, "The launch of the OGC Gateway Review process provides a clear and sensible process to assure project management and development and to secure ultimate success."

Andrew Smith, chief secretary to the Treasury, and Peter Gershon, head of the OGC, said the Gateway Review process was bringing the best tried-and-tested private sector project management techniques to central government.

Smith and Gershon insisted that it would be mandatory and projects would not be allowed to proceed without it. Already, about 60 IT projects have been earmarked for review before implementation.

However, in what could prove to be a major loophole, the reviews will not be compulsory in large parts of the public sector.

The Ministry of Defence, health service, local government, the Post Office and other public sector bodies with heavy IT investment will not have to comply with the process.

Projects like the £1bn Post Office and Benefits Agency swipe card project, the subject of a Commons Public Accounts Committee hearing last Monday, would not be covered, nor would the National Air Traffic Control Services' new Swanwick centre, which has suffered years of delays and cost overruns. Neither will it apply to major NHS projects like the national patient booking system, unless requested.

With public sector IT predicted to hit 1% of gross domestic product by 2003, some £10bn, according to analyst Kable, there will still be plenty of scope for expensive failures.

A second loophole is that while use of the Gateway Review is mandatory, the OGC has few powers to cancel projects it believes are going off the rails.

However, OGC insiders are confident that failure to abide by Gateway Review suggestions will be a career breaker for senior civil servants. They also hope that as the Gateway Review shows its worth, it will become the de facto project management procedure across the whole public sector.

The OGC is already offering to accredit and operate gateway review systems for organisations outside central government, if asked.

A series of pilot reviews tested IT schemes, including the Cabinet Office's Knowledge Network and the UK Online citizen portal to the fourth stage of the review. These pilot reviews, on a range of IT and property procurements, led Smith and Gershon to announce potential savings of 5%, or £500m on central government procurement over four years.

The OGC has deliberately gone for a conservative estimate of potential savings, with staff hoping that considerably more can be achieved.

Averting just one of the Government's recent highprofile IT disasters would save millions of pounds and it would make a substantial inroad into that target.

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The five stages of Gateway Review

  • Justify the business case

  • Approve the procurement method and sources of supply

  • Agree the investment decision prior to award of contract, ensuring technical issues are covered

  • Approve the project's readiness for service and the organisation is ready to implement

  • Identify the benefits delivered by against those planned.

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