Time for real accountability on Whitehall IT projects, say MPs

Sir Archy Kirkwood MP is determined to see that officials and ministers are more open and accountable to Parliament on the...

Sir Archy Kirkwood MP is determined to see that officials and ministers are more open and accountable to Parliament on the progress or otherwise of major IT projects.

After an eight-month inquiry into IT projects the main recommendations of a Commons Work and Pensions committee, which he chairs, focus on accountability. "We believe that greater openness is important in its own right, but should also lead to a higher success rate," said the committee's 99-page report which was published last week.

Kirkwood is a particularly mild-mannered MP. But he says that if officials and ministers refuse to take action on his committee's 36 recommendations and conclusions on improving the success rate of major IT projects, MPs will look further into the issues raised in their report.

"If we do not get firm assurances we will be back," said Kirkwood whose committee comprises mainly Labour MPs.

His committee's recommendations drew heavily on written and oral evidence from Computer Weekly, which highlighted the lessons learned from decades of government IT projects that failed to meet expectations.

The committee also heard from more than 20 other witnesses, including senior IT executives at the Department for Work and Pensions and Peter Gershon, head of the government's efficiency review.

More than 20 organisations and individuals submitted papers, including the BCS, suppliers' body Intellect, analyst firm Gartner, suppliers IBM, EDS, CSC and SchlumberSema. The Treasury's Office of Government Commerce also supplied evidence on IT projects in central government departments. It is likely to strongly oppose some of the committee's findings which, if implemented, would mean a radical reform of the Whitehall culture of secrecy.

Computer Weekly called for publication of the Gateway reviews, which are short, independent assessments of risky projects at critical stages. It also proposed that the UK enact legislation, which draws on the Clinger-Cohen Act in the US.

This law provides a statutory framework which improves accountability and reporting to Congress on the progress of contracts or their deviation from their original intentions. The committee took both of these ideas forward.

The government's response to the recommendations is expected within two months.

For a full copy of the report, go to  http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/work_and_pensions_committee.cfm

Key recommendations of the report     

  • That the government should publish Gateway reviews with appropriate safeguards or set out how Parliament can be provided with the level of information it needs to adequately scrutinise questions of value for money from major IT contracts 
  • That in the event the case against full publication of Gateway reviews can be substantiated, we call upon the department to provide a summary document of each review within six weeks of the review being completed 
  • That the government invites the Office of Government Commerce to undertake and complete a review by 1 July 2005 into the likely effect of implementing the Clinger-Cohen statutory framework in the UK 
  • The introduction of an independent, publicly available, continuing assessment of concept viability for all major IT projects as they are developed by the department 
  • That the department recruits sufficient numbers of skilled project managers with knowledge of IT projects to negotiate contracts and monitor IT suppliers effectively 
  • That the department spends at least 20%, of the budget of any major IT project on examining its business processes and putting the necessary organisational systems in place before new computer systems are introduced 
  • That the DWP publish strategic outlines and full business cases with relevant supporting information.

Source: Departments for Work and Pensions, Management of IT Projects, Making IT deliver for DWP customers report

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