Open the doors on government IT projects now, demand MPs

Commons committee recommends publication of Gateway reviews of Whitehall IT projects.

Commons committee recommends publication of Gateway reviews of Whitehall IT projects.

Parliament last week launched its heaviest attack yet on the culture of secrecy that surrounds government IT projects.

After an exhaustive eight-month inquiry, the House of Commons Work and Pensions select committee has published a report into public sector IT project disasters.

The 99-page report by the Labour-dominated committee takes on the lack of transparency and the inability to comply with best practice that have characterised so many public sector failures and lays out a programme for putting things right.

Committee chairman Sir Archy Kirkwood MP gave the government two months to come up with an adequate response or, he said, the committee "would simply return to the attack".

In a key recommendation the committee threw its weight behind a campaign by Computer Weekly for Gateway reviews of risky government IT projects to be published.

In addition to the publication of Gateway reviews, the committee wants the publication of strategic, outline and full business cases on all major IT projects. The business cases set out the effect of a project on an organisation's cash flow and balance sheet, show how risks will be managed and what are the contingencies.

The committee also recommended a study by July next year into the likely effect of implementing a UK statutory framework similar to the Clinger-Cohen Act passed by president Clinton in the US in 1996. The legislation could improve compliance with good practice and strengthen accountability of departments to Parliament and other stakeholders.

The recommendation was made despite Peter Gershon, head of the government's efficiency review, questioning whether the US legislation has had a marked effect on the success of projects.

Computer Weekly gave the committee oral and written evidence on why an enactment in the UK of the act's most successful clauses would help avoid further failure in government IT-related programmes.

Treasury minister Ruth Kelly announced last month that she would consider a statutory framework. But it is the committee's call for the publication of Gateway reviews which will pit its MPs against the Treasury's Office of Government Commerce and some top civil servants who are determined to keep the documents secret.

The committee was unable to obtain any reviews or summaries of Gateway reviews, which were carried out on IT projects at the Department for Work and Pensions. The committee was told that public spending watchdog the National Audit Office provided scrutiny and oversight.

But the committee, although praising the work of the National Audit Office, said the NAO's reports were published after IT disasters had occurred and could not cover all major IT schemes. "Current projects need to be subject to current scrutiny," said the committee.

The government is not obliged to act on the report's recommendations. But Kirkwood said the committee would return to the issues raised by the report if the government and the department do not engage in a "sensible" debate on the findings.

Ministers usually respond to select committee reports within two months of publication.

"The committee's finding are a vindication of this publication's Shaking Up Government IT campaign," said Computer Weekly editor Hooman Bassirian.

"But the road to IT disasters is paved with good reports. The committee's work needs to be followed by action and we are heartened by the determination of Sir Archy Kirkwood [the committee chairman] to see it through.

"Our campaign is not the final word, but the start of a conversation on how to make government IT projects deliver successes."

Lessons from the inquiry     

  • "The vision of using effective IT accurately and speedily to process data to the benefit of customers, taxpayers and staff is a prize that is clearly worth pursuing" 
  • "Our main recommendations for improving the success rate of IT systems centre around improving accountability. We believe that greater openness is important in its own right, but should also lead to a higher success rate" 
  • "The necessary standards and methodologies of best practice are already in the public domain. The trick seems to be to get key people - from ministers to project teams - to comply with the standards" 
  • "We have yet to see evidence of brave decisions by ministers to re-focus or delay projects at an early stage. We suspect that too often civil servants may find it extremely difficult to say no to ministers, or if they do, may only do so when it is too late" 
  • "In our view, the decision to shed its skilled IT staff undermined the Department for Work and Pensions' ability to monitor or assess the work of its IT suppliers" 
  • "It is clear that issues around culture, staff training and working patterns were not given enough attention by managers. Change management has been recognised as crucial to successful IT" 
  • "It is a lucky caller who gets put through to somebody that can retrieve the relevant files onto their screen and extract the necessary information before the computer crashes. Defective IT can have an adverse effect on staff morale."

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

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