CIO Council to act to banish project failure

The government's chief information officer Ian Watmore and his new council of CIOs have agreed a series of measures with which...

The government's chief information officer Ian Watmore and his new council of CIOs have agreed a series of measures with which they intend to consign failures of major IT-related change projects to history.

The CIO Council - comprising about 30 CIOs from central and local government and the wider public sector - sees the prevention of project failure as a top priority.

Its work ties in closely with the aim of Computer Weekly's Shaking Up Government IT campaign, which has sought to bring to an end decades of major IT-related projects and programmes failing to meet expectations.

The group wants to make 2005 the year in which the government's IT reputation "bounces back," said Watmore, as he outlined the decisions of the council's first meeting two weeks ago.

Last year some government officials said the measures they had put in place were enough to prevent IT disasters, such as Gateway reviews by the Office of Government Commerce. Watmore and his group strongly support the work of the OGC but want further action.

Watmore has already met heads of departments who he said would welcome help to ensure their IT projects succeed.

His group wants to advise ministers and heads of department on the feasibility of IT-related projects and programmes as policy is being considered and before any go-ahead is given.

"When policy is being considered, the practicalities of that policy from an IT and [business] change perspective are considered at that time and we are a good group to get involved in that," Watmore said.

To help projects that are under way, Watmore plans to recruit a "heavy-hitter brigade" of experienced professionals who can help prevent IT projects from failing.

The aim is to "be proactive and not wait for reviews to surface or the phone to ring." Experts will aim to "get out there and spot the problems and dangers earlier."

The team will be managed by Watmore's e-government unit and will work on projects at short notice, but will be paid for by the departments and agencies which need them.

Watmore hopes that top business change specialists will be attracted to join the team by the idea of working on different projects. They could be working on, for example, the national programme for IT in the NHS and later switch to ID cards. Initially the brigade will comprise about six to 10 people.

"They will have to be rigorously assessed for experience and capability. We do not have a problem with lack of demand. If I had five of these people tomorrow they would all disappear in no time at all," said Watmore.

He also said systems must not be introduced until they and the department are ready to go live. This may mean persuading ministers to delay the introduction of systems even if they have a high political priority.

"If something is not right, let's wait until it is right before we bring it in," he said.

The government must recognise that the environment in which a contract is signed will change a year later, and after three years will be "very different," said Watmore. "I think we have to recognise we are going to have to change the priorities and sequence in which we do things. That is another challenge.

"We want more proactive troubleshooting of projects as they are going through their life. That means being more realistic in the wider community about how these projects go. Things will change and the important thing is to be able to come out and say they have changed and not get pilloried for it."

He added, "Best practice from the private sector is when you recognise change is needed, you get on and do it." Do not pretend things are as they were two or three years ago, he advised.

By bringing together CIOs from various departments Watmore hopes the council will tackle a series of pan-government issues. "We need to make sure we do not end up with a supplier who gets in trouble in one department effectively pulling resources from another department to help out - robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Watmore also wants to see the lessons from successes disseminated. "We have people who sweat blood on these projects and they do not want to feel they are working in environments which tend to fail," he said.

Leader >>

Read more on IT for government and public sector