MPs consider case for IT best practice legislation

Proposals to boost openness and accountability on government projects - put forward by Computer Weekly - won the support of...

Proposals to boost openness and accountability on government projects - put forward by Computer Weekly - won the support of senior figures in the IT industry when they were raised at a Parliamentary hearing last week.

The support came at a hearing of the Work and Pensions subcommittee headed by Sir Archy Kirkwood, chairman of the parent select committee. The subcommittee is investigating ways of improving the success rate of public sector IT projects.

MPs asked four witnesses from major IT companies that have contracts with the Department for Work and Pensions whether good practice should be mandatory and if independent "Gateway" reviews of high- and medium-risk projects should be published. The proposals had been put to the committee in a submission by Computer Weekly.

At the hearing Kirkwood said, "A number of things leap out at me as lessons from the written submissions. It would be possible for us to recommend that there should be a statutory basis for best practice enshrined in statutory instruments in the House of Commons.

"I am not saying that we will recommend that but we could if we wanted to, to try and get people to live up to best practice, because it seems to me that the things you need to do are staring everyone in the face."

When Kirkwood asked for the views of witnesses, Kevin Saunders, account director for the Department for Work and Pensions at Atos Origin, said that in principle he had no fundamental objections to making best practice mandatory.

All the supplier representatives agreed that Gateway reviews of government IT projects should be published.

John Corneille, a global partnering executive at IBM, replied "absolutely" to the question. His colleague at IBM, Jan Gower agreed, as did Derek Ward, vice-president of the publicsector at Atos Origin.

Saunders said, "I cannot see why we would have a problem with publication because we have been through them, we know how they work and they make key decisions." Ward said had no objections provided the reviews were published across the board and not selectively.

Separately, John Higgins, chief executive at Intellect, the trade association for suppliers, said the Office of Government Commerce should publish Gateway reviews, at least in a synthesised format, and possibly on an annual basis.

During the hearing the IBM and Atos Origin's representatives spoke candidly about problems with government IT contracts.

Ward said IT projects could be improved if suppliers could tell ministers a project was unrealistic without the assessment being construed as a negative rather than a positive comment.

"Creating that space for communication in an open and honest way will, I think, mitigate the major risks," said Ward.

Meanwhile Richard Bacon, a member of the Public Accounts Committee, raised the campaign for reviews to be published in a debate in the Commons. He said publication of the reviews would further strengthen the process.

"If these matters were in the public domain and MPs, members of the public and journalists could read about them, the department might be helped to conclude that it should take a slightly more robust view, and perhaps occasionally stop projects in their tracks," said Bacon.

Early day motion       

MP Vincent Cable has won support from MPs from all the main parties for an early day motion in the House of Commons on government computer contracts which backs Computer Weekly's calls in its Shaking Up Government IT campaign. 

The motion reads, "This house notes the recent report of the National Audit Office on the Criminal Records Bureau and numerous other reports of wasted public funds on public sector computer projects. It further notes the evidence of Computer Weekly to the Work and Pensions sub committee on computer projects; supports the call for best practice to be enshrined in UK law; supports the call for Gateway reviews by the Office of Government Commerce to be published; and notes that government departments are sometimes misusing the defence of commercial confidentiality to keep information out of the public domain; and urges the government to change this practice." 

Among the MPs backing the early day motion were: Bob Spink, Derek Wyatt, Colin Breed, Gregory Campbell, Andrew George, Bob Russell, Nigel Jones, Paul Tyler, Paul Marsden, Edward Davey, Elfyn Llwyd and Kevin McNamara.

Key points from the hearing        

  • Departments may set unrealistically tight deadlines. John Corneille of IBM said, "I cannot remember a case when a minister has approached us and said 'I think this needs to be delivered to this timescale: what do you think?'"  Witnesses agreed that political timetables of implementation are sometimes "at the margins of what is possible professionally" 
  • The Freedom of Information Act, due to come into full force next year, will make little difference to openness on IT projects because of the exclusion clauses  l Relationships between suppliers and departments can be strained by a lack of openness 
  • Having adequate contingency plans may be seen by departments as a sign of failure.

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