Why do government projects fail so often?

Government officials must be more accountable

Most UK central government systems are doomed before they start because no one will be responsible for ensuring that they succeed.

The recent Public Accounts Committee report, "Delivering successful IT-enabled business change" summarises the key difference between the public and private sector. "For commercial organisations, IT-enabled change can be crucial to the success or failure of the business and, reflecting this importance, incentives and performance management regimes are geared to motivate those responsible to succeed."

Public vs private

The case studies of success quoted by the committee all had continuity of ownership and management from start to finish. Public sector systems are not inherently bigger or more complex. The UK's largest and most complex systems are in the private sector, like the payment clearing services run by Voca or the identity management services run by Experian or Equifax.

It is the churn of ministers and officials that occurs between concept and implementation, and a lack of clarity over roles and responsibilities, that ensure failure.

We have long known that projects that take more than three years to complete are more likely to be cancelled than to succeed, and those with more than 15% staff turnover among key staff are in trouble.

Long projects are common to central government and few officials are in the post for more than 18 months. It is therefore essential that the government breaks its programmes into projects that can be delivered before the officials responsible - let alone ministers and advisers - have moved on.

Suppliers need to similarly ensure that those responsible for their side of delivery are committed to success - with sales bonuses paid after the post-implementation wash-up.

The way forward

The conclusions and recommendations in the Public Accounts Committee report are all excellent, particularly on improving skills for government workers, for programme and project managers and for IT professionals "with a clear brief to develop career paths and succession planning".

The implications are profound. The current comprehensive spending review has to be built around the skills available and the staff development plans already under way, if it is to succeed. Hence the talk by ministers of incremental change, re-using that which already works and has been paid for, within existing contracts.

But it will not be easy of overcome the pressures for "big" centralised systems for which the minister can be held to account on the Today programme.

Readers of this magazine are voters as well as IT professionals. You should write to your MP in support of the Public Accounts Committee recommendations and the attempts of the CIO Council to mandate good practice from the beginning, at the top - not afterwards when it is too late.

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