Path to success in government IT

Large government IT project failures cost the taxpayer millions of pounds each year. We can stop most, if not all, of these...

Large government IT project failures cost the taxpayer millions of pounds each year. We can stop most, if not all, of these failures, but this will require an erosion of the centuries-old culture of the civil service.

The "we know best and we don't need to explain anything" must be replaced with accountability, disclosure of information and uninhibited discussion about projects and their problems. This would avoid disaster because everyone would see it coming, making the need for pre-emptive action obvious. But the seemingly untouchable Sir Humphreys will not accept more accountability with good grace, so a change in the law is needed.

In the private sector board directors and the chief executive are accountable to shareholders. In the public sector nobody has ever been sacked over a failed major project. This blanket refusal to accept responsibility for, or even to deny, public IT failures neither provides an incentive for improvement nor does it do justice to the smaller-scale successes in government IT projects of which there are many. Newspapers do not give them prominence but public IT usually runs with impressive smoothness.

It is the huge projects, the ones that give ministers the ammunition to announce that the technology will make the UK a world leader, the ones that cost billions, the ones that some major suppliers have lobbied for, that go wrong.

And these will continue unless there are radical changes. The best solution is accountability: making everyone aware that they cannot make poor decisions with impunity, behind closed doors.

This week we report on a 15-fold increase in the costs of an IT project by spycentre GCHQ. At £308m it is a small-fry investment compared to the ID card proposals, the NHS' national programme for IT, and computer projects in defence and criminal justice which together could cost more than £8bn. Losses on this scale are unimaginable. And yet imaginable.

Sir Humphrey and his minister do not care for accountability. It cramps their style. But taxpayers care. Those in the IT community who wish to protect and enhance the reputation of the industry for diligence, quality and service also care.

Computer Weekly cannot bring about a revolution in accountability of the civil service. No prime minister yet has achieved it. But we can propose radical measures which go some way to improving accountability: a new law, building on the strengths of the US Clinger-Cohen Act, and the publication of Gateway reviews. We commend these recommendations to the House of Commons.

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