No accountability, no lessons learnt

Last week, the Government quietly brushed another public sector IT disaster under the carpet.

Last week, the Government quietly brushed another public sector IT disaster under the carpet.

You could easily be forgiven for having missed the Government's announcement last week of the scrapping of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate's (IND) Casework Application project. Indeed, nothing short of a detailed scrutiny of the pages of Hansard would have alerted you to the fact.

In a written answer to a parliamentary question on the progress that had been made towards the project's introduction, home secretary Jack Straw described it as "over-complex and out of touch with current working practices" and confirmed that it had been killed off.

The announcement itself comes as no surprise. Since the Home Office awarded Siemens the contract to overhaul the IND's processes and systems in April 1996 it has long been apparent that the company was unlikely to be able to deliver the project successfully.

By mid-1999, the backlog of asylum cases had reached 219,000, and the project's original deadline had long since passed. A damning report by public spending watchdog the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) concluded in the same year that the development of the new project had begun before the business requirements had even been finalised.

What is surprising, however, is the understated way in which this latest public sector IT failure has come to light. Damning reports are all well and good, yet how toothless they seem when there proves to be no accountability for the mistakes that drew their venom.

The Casework Application project was just one of a series of public sector IT disasters that elicited last year's Successful IT: Modernising Government in Action paper, in which the Cabinet Office offered guidelines to public sector IT directors for averting project disasters.

These guidelines, embodied in the Gateway Review process, represent an encouraging step forward, and several projects, the UK online Citizen Portal and IT 2000 among them, have benefited from their guidance. But now that a mechanism exists for ensuring project success, it is imperative that government departments are seen to embrace it - or else explain why not.

This is not a question of naming names, of finding scapegoats. History will continue to repeat itself, and projects continue to fail, until Whitehall establishes a climate of openness and accountability. The Gateway Review process can work, but only if it is underpinned by honest accounting for previous failures.

The opacity shown by the Government last week benefits no one - least of all the taxpayers, for whom a project intended to realise savings of £110m in the IND has been reduced to a costly liability.

With a major announcement from Westminster imminent, openness and honesty are imperative for the credibility of the Gateway Review process, for if this process loses its teeth the Government will have only its bulging worst-practice case book from which to draw project implementation lessons.

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