On the edge

Too many costly government IT projects come to grief or badly fail to live up to expectations. Tony Collins examines the common...

Too many costly government IT projects come to grief or badly fail to live up to expectations. Tony Collins examines the common factors and explains why more accountability is needed to reduce the waste of taxpayers' money

Whatever government is in power, department heads and ministers dance on the edge of a precipice when it comes to major IT projects. Peter Gershon, former chief executive of the Treasury's Office of Government Commerce, says no major public sector organisation has cracked the problem of achieving high levels of success in IT but "we think we are among the leaders of public sector in the world trying to confront this issue and come up with practical solutions".

Even so projects are still launched which are overly ambitious, unnecessarily risky, have constricted timetables, pay little heed to warnings, in which there is too little consultation with prospective end-users, and the commitment is too great to allow for any U-turn despite the history of failure on national IT projects.

A report by the National Audit Office on systems at the Criminal Records Bureau in February found that the timetable was too tight, warnings from stakeholders and a shortlisted supplier went unheeded, consultation with end-users was belated and then inadequate, and there were poor communications between the department and the supplier.

And, in another well-documented case, Fujitsu/ICL signed a £184m contract with the government which the supplier's staff regarded as undeliverable, according to a report of the National Audit Office in January 2003 on the Libra project for magistrates courts. The project was a disaster: the main purpose of the contract was to buy a core caseworking system for magistrates courts. A secondary purpose was to deliver office automation. In the end the core software was not delivered but Fujitsu did supply the office automation at a cost of nearly £50m more than the original contract price.

The challenge today of delivering successful projects is compounded by the lack of accountability. The biggest civil computer project in the world, the national programme for IT in the NHS, is criticised by many in the IT industry as being cocooned in secrecy. The minutes of regular meetings of consultative groups, the National Clinical Advisory Board and the Public Advisory Board, have not been published since their inaugural meetings seven months ago. And MPs who question the project receive evasive answers.

The Department for Work and Pensions, too, is equivocal when answering questions about the billions of pounds it is spending on an IT-led modernisation. It is at pains to point out what is not being abandoned rather than what is happening. It is also evasive when answering questions from MPs and Computer Weekly about whether a combination of system problems and internal management weaknesses are to blame for the Child Support Agency's poor service to the public.

Tenacious MPs who ask difficult questions on IT projects are easily rebuffed by departments. Richard Bacon, a member of the Public Accounts Committee did not accept the answers he was given on the failed Libra project. But the replies to his supplementary questions were swathed in vagueness, as were the replies to his further questions. "I never did get proper answers to my questions," said Bacon.

When the Ministry of Defence was asked by an MP about the state of software on its Chinook Mk3 helicopters, officials replied with details of problems that did not exist rather than those that did.

And such was the poor level of accountability at the government communications headquarters GCHQ that its board knew in 1997 that the figure it was given for the cost of moving the location of systems was wrong, but nobody corrected it. It was stated as being £20m when directors knew the figure should have been £41m. In fact the estimated cost turned out to be £450m. The truth did not emerge until the National Audit Office published its report on the office move in July 2003, six years after the mistaken cost underestimate.

There are volumes of papers and books on what constitutes best practice but there is no penalty for non-adherence to the guidance.

Since the early 1990s, the Public Accounts Committee has issued several reports which show that basic lessons are not being learned. After the debacle of the Regional Information Systems Plan at the Wessex health authority, a senior NHS official said a key lesson was not to centralise power and decision-making for major IT projects. Forgeting this principle, the Department of Health has centralised power and IT decision-making.

Senior managers in the public sector can take huge risks with public funds without any fear they will fall over the edge of the precipice. Protected by the Civil Service culture of secrecy, ministers and department heads can cover up the true state of a project or can present failures as successes.

When the transport select committee asked an executive at National Air Traffic Services about an IT project at the Oceanic air traffic control centre in Scotland he was full of praise for the contractor EDS. It later emerged during a court case that the board of Nats was, at the time of the assurance to Parliament, considering ending the contract with EDS.

Parliament was also misinformed about the Post Office's £1bn payment card project. The trade and industry select committee found that a senior minister spoke of the project's success within sight of its being cancelled.

When it comes to accountability, there is an important difference in approach between the private and public sectors.

Sometimes in the private sector people lose their jobs when a project fails, as happened at Prudential Europe when it ended an online insurance scheme. And managers at IT supplier Fujitsu/ICL lost their jobs when the Libra project failed, according to the report by the National Audit Office. Shareholders can hold a company's chief executive to account. But nobody in the public sector has ever been sacked because an IT project was abandoned, for they were only doing their jobs.

Nobody wants anyone to suffer damage to their careers when IT projects fail. It is in any case difficult to establish why a project has gone wrong and who, if anyone, was to blame. Even with the benefit of hindsight, reports from the National Audit Office rarely if ever single out one individual as blameworthy. It is usually the case that nobody is to blame.

Projects fail for the best of reasons: because ministers and department heads have wanted with exuberance to improve the way their departments deliver a service to the public. Suppliers add to the enthusiasm for new systems by pointing to what has been achieved in the US and elsewhere. But in the rush to achieve the benefits as soon as possible and for contracts to be signed with minimal bureaucracy, the most serious risks are categorised as manageable, as has happened with the NHS IT programme.

It could be said that the riskier the project, the greater its attraction: for the bigger the challenge, the more chance the UK government will be hailed a technological world leader. Richard Granger, the head of the NHS' national programme, has likened the challenge of delivering the scheme to Brunel's Great Western Railway. This is, in part, because Granger hopes that the IT-led modernisation of the NHS will bring about lasting and profound change.

The US government has recognised that a lack of accountability, secrecy and cover-up has contributed to major failures of IT projects and has introduced legislation that requires departments to report contemporaneously to Congress on the progress or otherwise of projects; and to disclose any deviations from standing orders. The Clinger-Cohen Act is not perfect, but it puts accountability and the need to adhere to principles of project management on a statutory footing. There is no similar compulsion for departments to report to Parliament.

This is why Computer Weekly advocates the publication of Gateway reviews which are independent rapid assessments of projects at various stages by the Office of Government Commerce. We also recommend the passing of legislation for the UK public sector which builds on the strengths of the Clinger-Cohen Act.

Few people want more red tape to add to the overheads of companies. But the Clinger-Cohen Act is not for the private sector: businesses are specifically excluded from its provisions. The main aim of the law would be to provide a framework of accountability that means ministers and departments report on the progress of projects to Parliament when they are under political pressure to meet tight deadlines. This would help to ensure that flawed projects are stopped and reviewed independently rather than allowed to continue because those on the project have a vested interest in keeping it going.

Legislation that forced people to wear seat belts was thought an unnecessary intrusion by some but it has saved lives. Nobody would say today that the law was unnecessary. Publishing Gateway reviews and introducing legislation will not stop IT disasters but, as with seat belts in serious crashes, it would reduce the chances of fatalities.

Boosting accountability would discourage departmental heads and ministers from describing failed projects as successes. It would also give a greater incentive to departments and ministers to seek to apply the lessons from history when conceiving, planning, implementing and measuring the success of major systems.

Failed public sector projects hit the most vulnerable and needy, as happened with the introduction of systems at the Child Support Agency and Inland Revenue's tax credits.

By the time the National Audit Office reports on such projects, huge sums may have been wasted, opportunities to improve the service to citizens may have been lost, and those who were on the programme and could have benefited from Parliamentary scrutiny are likely to have moved to other posts or jobs.

There is no evidence that the number of disasters has increased or decreased in recent decades. The difference today is that the amount of money spent on risky projects is greater than in the past. Plans by the Home Office to introduce ID cards may cost more than £1bn. The Department for Work and Pensions is the throes of a modernisation for which more than £2bn has been set aside, and the Ministry of Defence is embarking on an infrastructure scheme costing more than £3bn.

Suppliers will always tempt ministers and heads of departments and agencies into spending large sums on new technology. And many in government will welcome the innovation that comes from risk-taking. But a calculated gamble should be against a framework of accountability in which Gateway reviews are published and checks and balances are put on a statutory footing, as in the US.

Without radical action, Computer Weekly does not believe that anything will change: the IT disasters will continue largely because there are no real obstacles in the path of failure.

Lifecycle of a public sector IT failure 

  • The design accords with the best practice project principles, but there is an expansion of the objectives and costs as interested parties give their views on what the new systems could do
  • An invitation to tender is issued, but the commitment to the timescales and design is too great to heed warnings from prospective end-users, unions or one or two reputable prospective suppliers that the timetable is too tight or the scope unrealistically ambitious
  • After contracts are awarded fuller consultation with potential end-users begins but is inadequate or self-selective 
  • The supplier begins to realise it has over-estimated its ability to understand the customer's business and convert this into IT systems, while the customer realises it has over-estimated the capability of the supplier. More often than not the supplier realises too that it has not asked enough questions before signing the contract, and the customer has not understood its business sufficiently to explain its work practices, the complexities of the project, the risk of failure and real costs to the supplier 
  • The timetable begins to lengthen and the projected costs increase but the commitment is too great to allow any indecision or U-turn
  • As the project begins to founder, the cover-up begins. Failure is depicted as success. MPs do not get well-rounded answers to questions
  • Failure can no longer be hidden because the public or the departmental end-users are affected by the contract's being abandoned, changed, rewritten or re-awarded 
  • Years later there are sometimes reports by the National Audit Office and the Commons Public Accounts Committee
  • The department says it has learned from the mistakes of the past 
  • Those who give these assurances that lessons have been learned move on and are replaced by new personnel who embark on projects which repeat the mistakes of the past 
  •  The cycle begins anew.

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