Pressure mounts to reform government IT as project failures continue to hit services

A House of Commons committee launches a fundamental review of best practices in IT, focusing on the Department of Work and...

A House of Commons committee launches a fundamental review of best practices in IT, focusing on the Department of Work and Pensions' modernisation projects.

A House of Commons select committee is half way through one of the most fundamental reviews of government IT ever carried out.

The MPs are examining the Department of Work and Pensions' management of its IT projects, and may seek to draw out lessons for the whole of Whitehall.

The DWP's modernisation programme is one of the largest programmes of its kind in Europe. "It will have a major impact on the lives of its 26 million customers," the department noted in its 2003 annual report.

IT is central to the department's efforts to improve its quality of service and reduce fraud and error. The committee's investigation will take a close look at the Child Support Agency's IT overhaul and best practice in general.

Among the questions it seeks to answer are:

  • Should policy be simplified before drawing up an IT specification and does this happen in practice?
  • Do bespoke IT systems ever work successfully?
  • Is there a competitive process in awarding IT contracts with the DWP?
  • Does a genuine transfer of risk occur between the DWP and its suppliers, especially in the case of administering benefits?
  • Does commercial confidentiality unnecessarily obscure transparency and accountability?

The committee, a subgroup of the work and pensions select committee, has been given powers to call witnesses and investigate IT projects outside its normal terms of reference.

MPs take evidence from specialists on how to avert government IT disasters     

British Computer Society 

The British Computer Society's submission to the work and pensions subcommittee pointed to a series of "flawed perceptions" about software systems. These included: 

  • Anything is possible - "Both customers and suppliers are liable to forget the very real limitations of software; unrealistic and infeasible expectations are the result." 
  • We can change as we go - "Excessive requests for new features or alterations of functions during the project... increase the chance of failure and contribute to over-runs in completion times and budgets." 
  • Let's do it as usual - "Software's inherent flexibility... [means that users] will invariably request changes to be made to software, rather than modify their processes to find an off-the-shelf package." 

The BCS also highlighted progress towards project improvement, including:  

  • Engagement - "It is vital that customers should be engaged in the development process from its inception to completion, and that the project team has well-defined mechanisms that allow the customer both to be involved in the project and add value during its lifetime." 
  • Commercial considerations - "Given the scale of potential losses when projects fail, commercial relationships must be set up so that timescales, functionality and financial risks are managed in an equitable manner." 
  • Change management - "Successful projects realise that unpredicted changes occur and put in place contingency processes and funding resources to manage these changes." 

Intellect 

Intellect, which represents 1,000 IT suppliers in the UK, told the committee, "We do not believe there is anything to gain by publicly apportioning blame when projects run into difficulties. Rather we see it as far more important to understand the lessons learned and to work in partnership to ensure that best practice is embedded among both customers and suppliers." 

The Office of Government Commerce has outlined perceived problems with the IT industry, Intellect noted, including "unrealistic claims about our capability to deliver, standards relating to corporate capability and individual professionalism, inappropriate business models and post-contract changes to scope". 

Intellect's submission said, "All these criticisms could be expected of customers who have invested a great deal of money and believe they have not yet reaped the promised benefits." 

The organisation highlighted its work with the OGC to develop the Senior IT Forum of supplier and user organisations, which has launched three initiatives: 

  • Senior responsible industry executive - the supplier equivalent of the senior responsible owner in a user organisation 
  • Government procurement code - a code of practice for government and its suppliers 
  • Value for money evaluation - a best practice guide on balancing cost and quality over the lifetime of a contract. 

Office of Government Commerce 

Peter Gershon, chief executive of the Office of Government Commerce, told the committee that no major public sector organisation in the world had completely got to grips with IT project failure. But, "we think we are among the leaders in cracking the problem," he said. 

He said the OGC can warn ministers that a proper risk analysis is necessary before policies that rely on IT are announced. He highlighted a series of measures to drive up success rates. Independent peer reviews would limit the number of people who "mark their own homework", said Gershon, suggesting that the senior responsible owner could act as a bridge between technology and the business world. 

The government is trying not to roll out "big bang" projects and departments now avoid announcing that projects will go live on a certain date, he argued at.  

"Ministers are sensitised to the issue that technology must be handled with great care. I have told secretaries of state that what they are trying to do is too risky," said the OGC chief executive.  Projects are now categorised as "mission-critical", "highly desirable" and "desirable". "Mission-critical projects get the scrutiny they deserve and should attract the best resources that suppliers and departments have," Gershon said. 

The government has dropped the use of private finance initiative funding for IT projects and now considers the track record of suppliers when awarding contracts, he added. 

Gateway reviews are uncovering weaknesses in the early stages of projects and helping to ensure that these are tackled, he said.

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