Ownership is hallmark of new approach to public IT projects

Will the latest proposals from the Government and the IT industry lead to better management of publicly-funded IT projects? James...

Will the latest proposals from the Government and the IT industry lead to better management of publicly-funded IT projects? James Rogers reports

Joint proposals from the Government and the IT industry to try to curb the extent of public sector IT failure have been given a qualified welcome by those experienced in large- scale project management.

The programme from the Computing Services & Software Association (CSSA) and the Treasury is designed to end the cost and time overruns associated with public sector IT projects by creating a new framework for leadership and high-level value-for-money guidance.

Martin Sexton, financial systems implementation specialist at London Market Systems, said, "Any framework that is the catalyst for improved openness and supplier transparency, is a major step forward."

He also believes that the framework will place an onus on public sector organisations to devote some serious thought to how they go about dealing with the private sector when it comes to major IT projects. "The proposal recognises the need for more intelligent clients as well as delivering value for money," he said.

Experts have warned that the public sector lacks the business analysis skills normally found in the private sector. Certainly, the Government has a chequered history when it comes to implementing IT projects.

Home Office officials, for example, recently told the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee that poor standards of project management had played a major part in the troubles besetting the probation service's IT strategy.

Even Treasury minister Andrew Smith, launching the proposals at the CSSA procurement conference in London last week, admitted that the Government's past record for implementing major IT projects was patchy. Referring to previous high-profile IT project failures such as the Passport Office, he said, "Our track record has not been as good as it could be."

This could all be set to change. The CSSA-sponsored proposals include a new framework for the leadership of projects which aims to iron out cultural differences between the Government and the private sector which have often dogged previous projects.

In future the senior responsible owner from the government side and an industry equivalent will collaborate to set the basis on which the parties will work together to deliver IT-enabled business change.

While welcoming the proposals, Sexton believes that this section of the initiative has the potential to tie some organisations up in red tape.

He said, "The creation of the senior responsible owner could be seen by some as an extra layer of bureaucracy," he said.

The next few months appear to be busy ones for the Office of Government Commerce (OGC). It will issue new guidance on drafting contracts that support effective partnering and put in place a wider commercial skills programme to improve the skills of public employees.

For Sexton, this move is particularly significant. He explained, "The creation of the wider commercial skills programme is a step in the right direction, it will result in better technology awareness, improve staff retention and increase motivation."

The OGC is also set to play a major part in developing a number of the other proposals. The department will shortly issue high-level value-for-money guidance on IT projects. Officials say that this will make the government IT marketplace more accessible for suppliers.

Not to be outdone, the IT industry is working with the OGC to develop its own code of conduct for members, to set out standards of behaviour for suppliers working with the government. For its part, the Government claims that it already operates in line with its own code of good customer practice with suppliers.

But will the proposals bring real benefits to projects? Danny Jones, programme director at sourcing consultancy Morgan Chambers, welcomes the proposals but urges all those participating in projects to be open about their ability to commence work. He said, "For me the test will be if people involved in both sides of an IT-enabled business project will be prepared to admit that they are not ready to start."

Jones warns that there has often been a necessity to start projects in order to meet a given deadline, which sometimes overtakes good sense. He explained, "This is a positive move but it is seeking to change a lot of behavioural patterns, both within the Government and the private sector."

On the plus side, the scheme does bring together top-level expertise from both government and the private sector, something that has been lacking in some previous IT projects.

The proposals are the brainchild of the Senior IT Forum, which brings together representatives of the public sector and the IT industry. Launched last year, the forum is chaired by OGC chief executive Peter Gershon and jointly sponsored by the OGC and the CSSA.

Government officials are even claiming that the proposals complement the Government's Gateway review process that was announced earlier this year to ensure that projects deliver long-term effectiveness. Ultimately, however, only time will tell if it can improve the Government's relationship with suppliers.

Moves towards accountability
The Government appears to be setting an example with this initiative. Treasury minister Andrew Smith confirmed that the Meteorological Office, the Department of Health, and the Charity Commission will test a new approach to project leadership in live procurement projects as part of the programme.

The approach includes:
  • A new framework for the leadership of projects

  • High level value-for-money guidance

  • A partnering approach recommended for all complex IT projects

  • A joint education programme as part of OGC's wider commercial skills framework

  • Input to a wider supplier code of conduct.

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