Twenty five years of government IT project failure

Two messages on Twitter last week on the failure of a £513m IT-based "C-Nomis" project at the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office were striking.

Two messages on Twitter last week on the failure of a £513m IT-based "C-Nomis" project at the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office were striking.

One was from Ian Cuddy who runs online content operations at Public Sector Forums, a news and information discussion group.

He repeated a disclosure by the Public Accounts Committee that nobody was sure how £161m allocated to the C-Nomis project had been spent.

"Isn't this ministerial resignation stuff?" Ian Cuddy tweeted.

The other striking comment on C-Nomis came from Alan Burkitt-Gray, editor of Global Telecoms Business.

"Depressing isn't it? The Public Accounts Committee was writing this 12 years ago. They just don't learn, or can't," he said.

Alan Burkitt-Gray was right - except that the Public Accounts Committee was reporting on IT-based failures in government not just 12 years ago, but a quarter of a century ago.

The committee's ultimately unsuccessful crusade to discourage government from launching over-optimistic, ill-considered IT-based projects began in 1984. "We noted the dangers of general over-optimism about the benefits and time scales of computer projects," it said in a report in June of that year. Since then numerous similar reports of the committee have made little difference to the way government projects are run.

Last month, for example, the committee published its most critical report on any IT-based programme after three investigations of the Rural Payment Agency's Single Payment Scheme. The cost of the IT system rose four fold, from £75.8m to £350m, and it may never work reliably, said the NAO.

"If we deliberately tried to sabotage every system we build, we could not do a more comprehensive job," said Les Hatton, a professor at Kingston University Faculty of Computing. Public money was spent on "grandiose schemes clothed in secrecy, managed incompetently and producing nothing of any lasting value," he said.

The National Audit Office - which reports to the Public Accounts Committee - has reported on the lessons from IT-based successes, mostly small and medium-sized projects, and the odd large one, such as the Pensions Credit programme. But its work shows that most of the biggest programmes go awry.

A reason often cited for failure is over-optimism. But for many commentators, this is a polite excuse for repeated gross underestimates of complexity, costs and the time to completion.

Labour MP Austin Mitchell, a member of the Public Accounts Committee said: "The whole process of innovation is a game of deceit because when departments have to present their project to the Treasury, they have to exaggerate its benefits and minimise its defects to con the Treasury."

What public sector IT-based failures expose is the near anarchy in some corners of government administration. When auditors investigate projects such as C-Nomis and the Single Payment Scheme, they cannot always find paperwork to support payments or changes to the system.

Will things improve? Kris O'Reilly, who has completed MBA research into public sector IT, said it is highly probable that government IT projects will continue to demonstrate significant project failure.

"Questions over accountability seem key, with the PAC and the NAO lacking the authority to address serious questions over Governments project management policy," he says.

"Serious project failure appears to go unpunished and far too many SROs [senior responsible owners] seem to lack the right skills to lead projects effectively, increasingly likely when there are no real deterrents in place to manage poor performance."

Until the system of government is reformed nothing will change; and this reform hasn't happened for decades, so will it happen now?


Comments by Public Accounts Committee report on C-Nomis, a system to modernise IT in prisons 
"The C-Nomis project has been handled badly, resulting in a three-year delay in programme roll-out, reductions in scope and benefit, and a doubling of programme costs.
"The way the C-Nomis project was managed and monitored was completely unacceptable."
"It is deeply depressing that after numerous, highly critical PAC reports on IT projects in recent years, the same mistakes have occurred once again.
"We question the purpose of our hard work if Whitehall accepts all our recommendations but still cannot ensure a minimum standard of competence."


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