Following a campaign by this publication and MPs, a Treasury minister has agreed to study proposal for a statutory framework to avoid IT-related project failures.
The government's announcement last week that it is to consider legislation which will improve the transparency and accountability on major IT projects was welcomed by MP Richard Bacon.
A leading member of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Bacon has been an active supporter of Computer Weekly's campaign for a statutory framework to force departments to be more open about IT projects and for the Treasury's Gateway reviews on their progress to be published.
Bacon believes that although there are reams of general statements on good practice in IT across Whitehall, specific lessons are not being learnt. Too few mandarins understand the risks at a "level of specificity and exactness that is required", he said.
The government's announcement came near the end of a debate in the Commons last Tuesday on the work of the PAC. Many of the comments had focused on the common factors in IT projects that have failed to deliver the expected benefits.
Bacon said, "I firmly believe that if we are to improve things we need more scrutiny, more openness and more accountability in the system. Last week's issue of Computer Weekly [22 June] set out the lifecycle of a public sector IT failure."
He then described the anatomy of a typical project failure and why mistakes are repeated, as set out in Computer Weekly. "That summary is all too realistic," said Bacon. "Over the years, the PAC has examined scores of projects that exhibit those characteristics."
He added that highlighting IT disasters was a positive step towards tackling failure. In the debate Bacon quoted the philosopher Karl Popper, who argued that all human knowledge was, in one way or another, the result of human beings' learning from their mistakes.
"The great and obvious exception to that principle is the planning, procurement and management of government IT projects," said Bacon.
When Brian Jenkins, a Labour member of the committee, asked for a solution to failures and added that IT suppliers to government are among "the best private sector companies in the country", Bacon replied that the problems are systemic.
He repeated the need for Gateway reviews to be published and said that even a project's suppliers are sometimes not informed of the results of a review.
"It is not the case that suppliers are wary of such openness. It is departments and their officials that are so wary. They are far more protective of the so-called need for commercial confidentiality because it helps protect them from future criticism."
Another MP on PAC, Liberal Democrat Richard Allan, said it would be helpful to see early Gateway reviews, such as "those on feasibility and all the technical issues that do not necessarily involve suppliers".
Allan said, "For example, when we debate the draft ID Cards Bill, it would be helpful to have the early Gateway reviews before us to help us think about the feasibility of implementation."
Bacon went on to say that when the US was faced with a series of IT disasters it passed the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996.
"The US government recognised that the lack of accountability, particularly in IT projects, and a culture of secrecy and cover-up had contributed to major failures in IT projects," he said.
"Legislation that provides a clear framework for accountability would be an important step in forcing the searchlight into some of the darker corners of IT projects, where the natural tendency is to cover up mistakes."
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