Revenue report glosses over facts

Why does Computer Weekly report more often on the failure of government rather than private sector projects? One reason is that...

Why does Computer Weekly report more often on the failure of government rather than private sector projects? One reason is that there are usually clearly defined lines of accountability in the private sector: those responsible for a failure might lose their jobs.

This never happens in government. The only deterrent to repeating the mistakes of a previous IT disaster is embarrassment in the press or a critical report by the public spending watchdog the National Audit Office. This makes it all the more important that the NAO identifies lessons from project failures so that the same problems do not recur.

But as our analysis on the National Insurance Recording System shows, the NAO is burying detail on serious flaws in a major contract in the body of a report while giving the overall impression that the project has been a success. This makes the report a pointless exercise: busy departments are unlikely to take notice of a report that highlights lessons learned from a project that is neither a clear success nor an evident failure.

It is astonishing, for example, that the NAO skates over the fact that Inland Revenue broke the law by awarding a £100m-plus contract without open competition.

It is not the competence of NAO staff that we question. We do not doubt their skills because the detail is in the reports. What we condemn is the way the final report is so watered down from the drafts that it defers to the most senior civil servants in departments and agencies.

Often the biggest mistakes are detailed only in annexes of reports. But the NAO exists to hold departments accountable. It is not doing its job if its reports are so worded that you need an Enigma machine to decipher their messages.

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