Your Shout! Public sector IT projects

Last week, Colin Beveridge examined the reasons behind high-profile, public sector IT project failures. A number of

Last week, Colin Beveridge examined the reasons behind high-profile, public sector IT project failures. A number of readers have provided us their views of the apparent failings in the public sector. But is the private sector that much better?

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Martin Johnson
believed Colin had hit one side of the nail on the head. He said the canker went deeper than government policy. "One of the biggest problems I have witnessed is that a lot of managers who invariably make the decisions for IT equipment and software solutions are not necessarily knowledgeable enough to have made those choices in the first place."

As a GP working for a primary care group and the chair of the Primary Care Support Group, Mark Trowell, said he has seen the problem time and time again. "We are unable to get basic infrastructure sorted." For example, there are servers and PCs more than five years out of date. [The public sector] does not follow the latest whim."

Organisational and management complexity is a significant reason for failure, argued Iain Woods. "Most project management jobs within departments are managed on a day-to-day basis by a grade 6-7 civil servant. Typically they are people in their mid-40s to 50s and, in most cases, will have managed a relatively simple IT project. They are then presented with a job to deliver a complex multimillion-pound system."

He said such people have no responsibility for costings and strategy and access to the individuals who control it is limited. "They work for an organisation where every senior civil servant has his own agenda and where business strategy actually means scoring political points to the detriment of another colleague." Every change means another piece of work to be scoped and billed.

Dave W Farthing at the School of Computing, University of Glamorgan pointed out three characteristics of a public sector project failure. First, an assumption that a project's scope can be firmly fixed from the outset, regardless of how little we know about the problem domain.

Second, he said: "We can and must fix its budget and deadline firmly without exception."

The third characteristic is that when a project fails to meet its immovable targets, its failure is publicised. "Many private-sector projects fail too, but are hushed up or redefined as successes," he added.

"Unlike ourselves, the private sector is much better equipped to bury their casualties," said Ian Petticrew. "With irate shareholders and market analysts to face up to, there's no lack of incentive!"

A few "mishaps" do, of course, creep out - for example, the stock market's Taurus project is estimated to have resulted in losses to all concerned (around £400m at 1992 prices). These lie in an entirely higher stratum than anything that has occurred in the UK government sector. "The Public Accounts Committee does an excellent job hanging out the government sector's dirty washing in public. It's a pity there's not a comparable organisation for the private sector."

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