Why is Labour’s record on big IT-based projects so bad?

The Labour Party Conference has avoided any debate on the state of its largest IT projects and programmes - which, given its record, is to be expected.

The Labour Party Conference has avoided any debate on the state of its largest IT projects and programmes - which, given its record, is to be expected.

All governments have unsung IT successes and large failures. But New Labour has had more big government IT-based calamities on general exhibit than any government we can remember, despite earnest attempts to learn lessons.

The Party's record was summed up in November 2004 by the National Audit Office, whose reports are always carefully-worded. It said, "The government has a poor record on delivering successful large IT-based projects and programmes." That perception remains today.

Ministers have launched "Transformational government" among many initiatives which are aimed at showing that government can use IT and unified working practices to provide cheaper, better services.

In 2000 the Cabinet office published "Successful IT", a worthwhile guide to avoiding not-so-obvious traps. The Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office have published many reports for more than a decade on what tends to make projects successes or not.

As well as these, the Office of Government Commerce launched the "gateway review" scheme early in the new millennium which is supposed to filter out flawed projects and programmes before their defects become manifest to MPs, the media and public. Impressive government CIOs including Ian Watmore and John Suffolk have tried to pre-empt high-profile failures.

But still the high-profile calamities drown out the successes: the IT fiasco over SAT tests, delays of four years in the "Scope" system to help combat terrorism and other threats by linking intelligence services and provide interfaces with the MoD and government departments, the anger among junior doctors over the failed MTAS applications system, and some local implementations under the NHS's £12.7bn National Programme for IT which have seriously disrupted patient care and operations and appointments. These are only a few of New Labour's IT embarrassments.

Why is its record on large projects so bad? The failures, we believe, have more to do with politics and culture than technical architectures and project management methodologies.

Building a bridge from the US to England may seem a good idea in theory but it is not practical. Yet ministers embarked on the technological equivalent with the NHS's £12.7bn National Programme for IT because nobody they would want to listen to told them it was fanciful.

One reason so many large public sector projects fail is that executives from some IT suppliers regularly propose to government unrealistic but ostensibly credible and beneficial solutions to problems civil servants did not know existed until suppliers explained what could be achieved with new technology.

The tenacity of some suppliers wears down civil servants. Indeed the centralising, self-aggrandising, and self-expanding instincts of bureaucracies play perfectly into the hands of some IT sales teams who understand the "transformational" agendas of successive governments.

What is the solution? There is no real incentive to get it right. Senior Responsible Owners, ministers and permanent secretaries come and go. There have been countless civil service and ministerial leaders of the NHS's IT scheme. Project committees are not accountable for their decisions.

One solution is for proper external scrutiny, including publication of internal audits of projects, and the publication of gateway reviews: the fear of getting it wrong, and being seen to get it wrong in real-time, would provide an incentive to get it right.

The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee provide some important, objective scrutiny - but they have looked at only a fraction of the 100 or so mission-critical government projects, and usually only years after they started.

The NAO and PAC reports are deliberately de-personalised so there is no individual accountability. It is not practical to solve the problem of a lack of individual accountability in government - it is part of the DNA of the Whitehall machinery. But you could force the bureaucracy to account for what it does and how it does it through the routine publication of external audits.

The plethora of sound recommendations for fundamental change in the Poynter review has been the best thing that has happened to HM Revenue and Customs for many years - but it took the loss of two CDs with details of 25 million people on them.

Would that there were regular Poynter reports on the major projects and management of every government department and agency. Then we perhaps would not see unrestrainedly fanciful projects being launched, and so many schemes fail.

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