Labour's IT masterplan

Will Ian McCartney's tough new measures prevent further government IT disasters?

Will Ian McCartney's tough new measures prevent further government IT disasters?

It is put-up or shut-up time for Ian McCartney, the Cabinet minister charged with getting government IT projects back on track.

Last week McCartney announced a series of "rigorous measures to drive up the performance of major government IT projects".

"This Government will not tolerate failure and will not repeat the mistakes of the past," he said.

Projects are still going wrong, affecting voters and producing embarrassing headlines. The House of Commons spending watchdog, the public accounts committee, continues to issue hard-hitting reports about IT projects; so do other Commons committees, including the social services select committee.

So far McCartney has been able to beat-off opposition attacks about IT disasters, like that at the Passport Office, by saying the projects were commissioned by the previous Tory administration.

But this explanation has a limited lifespan, as McCartney in effect acknowledged with last week's announcement.

With IT at the heart of Tony Blair's "Modernising Government" agenda, Labour has to start delivering. Two immediate challenges will be Quantum - the Prison Service IT renewal and the new systems at the Child Support Agency. Both have run into trouble in the past 18 months.

So what is to be done? McCartney's guidelines take on board many recommendations from the public accounts committee report "Improving the delivery of Government IT projects", published in January. These cover project design, scoping and management measures.

But embracing the public accounts committee has not been given unqualified support among IT-literate backbench Labour MPs. More than one is saying committee is part of the problem as its harsh reviews encourage technical conservatism rather than innovation.

These MPs want government reorganised on strict business lines. So they are likely to be delighted with the ambitious plans laid down by the Cabinet Office central IT unit in last month's "e-citizen, e-business, e-government" consultation document, which calls for government to adopt a range of e-business methods.

The Computing Services and Software Association (CSSA) - the trade association for the IT services and software sectors - has set up a group to co-operate with the Cabinet Office inquiry.

While IT outsourcers and suppliers have been subjected to intense criticism, they have gained the ear of McCartney and his team.

A Cabinet Office press release announcing the new approach extensively quoted John Higgins, director general of the CSSA, describing the initiative as "an excellent first step".

Despite this development, there is plenty of scope for confusion and conflict.

The Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency - the Government's IT consultants - is moving into the Office of Government Commerce that opens 1 April. Its staff expect to have a major role in McCartney's "peer review" process. The Cabinet Office, however, told Computer Weekly the "independent experts" will be private sector consultants.

The CSSA thinks incentives might encourage civil servants to improve performance on project delivery. Higgins tentatively suggested adopting an idea from the Cabinet Office Performance and Innovation Unit.

"It recently put out a report that called for 'stronger leadership from ministers and civil servants,' and 'systems of rewards and recognition that reinforce desired outcomes'," said Higgins.

"Perhaps the Government should be offering incentives to civil servants who see major projects through to success."

Jonathan Baume, head of the top civil servants union, the First Division Association, had a different view. He told Computer Weekly, "Poor ethical, customer care and technical standards of the IT industry are a fundamental part of the problem.

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

With so much at stake and so much conflicting advice the Cabinet Office review will not be the end of the story and the public accounts committee is unlikely to be out of business for a while.

McCartney's recommendations

Ministers: Ministers have to take a strong role in overseeing and scrutinising major IT projects. A series of seminars is being organised to raise awareness of IT among ministers.

Peer review: Departments will have to work with a team of independent experienced project managers to make sure their projects are safe to go ahead.

Sharing experience: The Government is establishing a central database of IT projects so that departments can learn lessons from each other and identify opportunities for "joined up" interdepartmental working.

Managing suppliers: The management of IT suppliers will be the first priority of the new Office of Government Commerce, which opens for business on 1 April.

Supplier planning: Suppliers will now be required to produce detailed plans, which demonstrate to the Government how they will deliver. The Office of Government Commerce will monitor these plans as projects proceed.

What is next?

The Cabinet Office will issue a series of further recommendations before May. These will include:

  • Developing mechanisms to ensure projects are run on a manageable scale.
  • Contingency planning.
  • Improving IT management skills of those in government.
  • Read more on IT project management