Tough challenge for Labour's IT pledge

The Whitehall IT review was received with mixed emotions by users, suppliers and analysts. Mike Simons reports

The Whitehall IT review was received with mixed emotions by users, suppliers and analysts. Mike Simons reports

Relief, amazement and a hint of cynicism typified the IT industry's reaction to the Government's review of major IT projects that was published last week.

There was relief because the report encapsulates best practice, draws lessons from past failures, offers clear proposals for change and meaningful timescales for its implementation.

The amazement comes from the fact that so many obvious mistakes were repeated so often. The report's authors admit early on, "Many of the reasons why IT-related change has frequently failed have been known for some time. Translating that knowledge into practice is not easy."

The cynicism has its roots in the knowledge that the corridors of power are lined with volumes on best practice. The question is, will this report simply join the others?

Some things are demonstrably different from the past. One is New Labour's commitment to make IT work. The Modernising Government agenda will stand or fall on IT.

A second difference is that this new policy is transparent and has an owner, the e-envoy Alex Allan.

Launching the report Allan said, "This will not be left on the shelves of Whitehall to gather dust. All recommendations set out actions, owners and delivery dates and I will work to ensure it makes a real difference."

Allan's enthusiasm and commitment has won support in Whitehall. Jonathon Baume, general secretary of the senior civil servants group the First Division Association, said, "These are eminently sensible proposals. They show the Government and civil service learning lessons. It is important they are implemented quickly."

The core of the policy is about strengthening the skills base of the civil service and changing its corporate culture so it can deal more effectively with suppliers. It will not be easy.

Rob McCallough, head of the IT practice at law firm Masons, said, "The report recommends that Senior Responsible Owners for every project be virtually 'hard wired' across government. This is to be accomplished by an appraisal and reward system. But individual accountability is a concept not generally present within the public sector."

To succeed McCallough suggested civil servants remuneration packages would have to rise to match those in the private sector and asked, "What happens to an unsuccessful SRO?"

Bloor analyst Martin Brampton saw other problems. "Talk of cultural change is important," he said. "You should stop the rotation of civil servants so it is impossible for them to see projects through."

However, he was wary of heaping too much pressure on the SRO. "IT service contracts are error prone and you must allow room to make mistakes."

Baume thought his members would relish, rather than fear, the opportunities and skills the proposals offer and said it offered the hope of "putting greater discipline on the private sector".

Management of suppliers and outsourcers is a second key theme of the document. The major IT companies, through the Computing Services & Software Association, had considerable input into the Cabinet Office review and have welcomed the report.

Behind the scenes, however, some suppliers have worries. One said, "The Cabinet Office has taken our suggestions and come up with proposals that seem totally internal to the civil service."

Another feared that the proposals would delay IT projects and increase the cost of doing business with the Government.

The problem was summed up by a senior figure with a major IT supplier, who said, "Partnership is fine, but we've necessarily got a different agenda to the Government."

Cabinet Office minister Ian McCartney was aware of this at a briefing to launch the policy last week. He called for partnership with suppliers but warned them, that if government was "seen as a soft option in the past, we will not be any more".

The government inquiry team said the most common criticism of suppliers was, "fielding a highly-skilled team of IT practitioners during the tender evaluation process but substituting weaker personnel after the contract had been awarded".

The document called on the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) to benchmark IT suppliers and the spread of information on their performance across government.

However, at a recent meeting, the Commons Public Accounts Committee heard Nick Montague, chairman of the Inland Revenue, and EDS director Alan Stevens discuss the problems of benchmarking and finding suitable comparators.

The OGC is still carving out a role for itself amidst rumours of Whitehall infighting and interdepartmental rivalry. Both McCartney and OGC chief Peter Gershon last week refused to say what sanctions would be imposed on failing suppliers.

Government projects that failed to live up to their dreams

Post Office/Benefits Agency Horizon project

This very large project central to the business of a number of public sector organisations, and justified on the basis of a shared business case, did not establish single ownership of the business case and project until two years after contract signing.

By this time, much of the original value of the business case had been eroded. The lack of a single point with overall responsibility for the project caused difficulties from the beginning, as the different organisations had varying degrees of commitment to the project objectives.

Immigration and Nationality Directorate

The project was designed to alter the working practices of a government body, employing extensive new technology, but focused too heavily on the commercial aspects of the agreement with its supplier.

While the contract seemed to offer excellent value for money, the project fell into difficulties because technical and management issues led to severe delays. The good commercial deal was not a substitute for satisfactory service.

National Air Traffic Control Swanwick Centre

The use of a fixed-price contract in one project meant that the requirement had to be reduced when the supplier's losses became too great.

The price was shown to be far below actual cost. The supplier had also promised unrealistic target dates.

Post Office/Benefits Agency Horizon project

This very large project central to the business of a number of public sector organisations, and justified on the basis of a shared business case, did not establish single ownership of the business case and project until two years after contract signing.

By this time, much of the original value of the business case had been eroded. The lack of a single point with overall responsibility for the project caused difficulties from the beginning, as the different organisations had varying degrees of commitment to the project objectives.

Immigration and Nationality Directorate

The project was designed to alter the working practices of a government body, employing extensive new technology, but focused too heavily on the commercial aspects of the agreement with its supplier.

While the contract seemed to offer excellent value for money, the project fell into difficulties because technical and management issues led to severe delays. The good commercial deal was not a substitute for satisfactory service.

National Air Traffic Control Swanwick Centre

The use of a fixed-price contract in one project meant that the requirement had to be reduced when the supplier's losses became too great.

The price was shown to be far below actual cost. The supplier had also promised unrealistic target dates.

This was last published in May 2000

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