Civil servants who assume responsibility for public sector IT-enabled projects see their role as a poisoned chalice, says the Office of Government Commerce in a report published today.
The bulletin "Lessons Learned - The SRO Role in Major Government Programmes " focuses on the role of the senior responsible owner. The senior responsible owner (SRO) is usually the project's business owner and the person held accountable if a project fails.
MPs on the Public Accounts Committee have been highly critical in the past of SROs of troubled projects. In May the committee criticised the appointment of the SRO of the troubled £513m C-Nomis project to install new IT in prisons. The SRO had not run an IT project before.
The Office of Government Commerce (OGC), which runs the gateway review scheme, says the role of SRO can be solitary and the difficulties of the task may not be appreciated by the SRO's sponsoring group which, on the largest projects, is usually the organisation's management board.
The OGC says: "This lack of appreciation and engagement by the SRO's corporate management can contribute to a feeling among some SROs that the role is something of a poisoned chalice. SROs can easily fail, to the potential detriment of their careers, whereas success is not widely recognised."
The OGC says departments should incorporate performance in the SRO role in individual performance targets. The SRO should have the appropriate skill set, says the OGC.
One of the difficulties faced by some SROs is that ministers set policy, which often cannot be changed afterwards.The OGC says some SROs are unable to affect the original policy development they are required to deliver.
Lack of time and experience
More than half of SROs are in their first SRO role and nearly half spend less than 20% of their time on such duties. "Lack of relevant experience, combined with a regular turnover of post-holders, adds unnecessary risk to the management of IT-enabled change," says the OGC.
One example of a large project which has a part-time overall SRO is the NHS's £12.7bn National Programme for IT. The lead NPfIT SRO is David Nicholson (pictured), who is also chief executive of the NHS.
The OGC says that some SROs allocate only a small percentage of their time to the programme, relying more directly on a full-time programme director.
One of the major concerns of the Public Accounts Committee, the National Audit Office and the OGC is that SROs on big projects change regularly. They stay in a post for about 18 months but most projects last at least two years. The NPfIT, which dates back to 2002, has had several SROs.
"There is a clear correlation between between continuity of SRO and high delivery confidence of projects, so high turnover represents a serious threat to the success of projects," says the OGC.
Read more about the role of SROs: