Movement of top civil servants restricts IT projects' progress

There are systemic problems in the management of Whitehall IT projects, according to MP Richard Bacon, a member of the...

There are systemic problems in the management of Whitehall IT projects, according to MP Richard Bacon, a member of the influential House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.

Bacon, a former investment banker at Barclays de Zoete Wedd, was speaking at the E-Government UK conference chaired by Computer Weekly at the Queen Elizabeth Centre in London last week.

He described weaknesses in the accountability to Parliament of civil service mandarins. "Judging by what I have seen, in terms of witnesses appearing before the Public Accounts Committee, one might be forgiven for thinking that the main skill required to get to the top rank of the civil service is an ability to explain fluently why something which looks for all the world like a total 'Horlicks' is, in fact, nothing of the kind, but the best that could reasonably have been hoped for in the exceptionally difficult set of circumstances with which the department was confronted," Bacon said.

He also criticised the way the civil service moves people around. "This is inherent in its culture, and is fundamentally at odds with successful project management," he added.

Bacon said that in August 1994 the Cabinet Office published a report which said that to maximise ownership and accountability the same individual, where possible, will often see a project through from inception to implementation.

Five months later the Home Office let the prime contract for the National Probation Service information systems strategy, which went on to have seven programme directors in as many years.

"You might have thought that anyone could have worked out that seven programme directors in seven years was a recipe for disaster - but at no point, apparently, did leaving the same skilled person in place in order to manage the project through assume a high enough priority," said Bacon.

The Cabinet Office now urges departments to have a single responsible owner on major projects but its guidance cannot be enforced.

"I do welcome the recent introduction of senior responsible owners in departments for each major IT project, who are to take responsibility for ensuring that the project meets its objectives and delivers its intended benefits," he said.

"This, however, does not alter the fact that running a project is not 'sexy' compared to policy-making.

"Until running a significant project successfully becomes an essential component of a top management career there will be reason to remain sceptical," Bacon said.

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