Report on CSA is the way forward

History shows that governments abhor transparency and accountability on large, IT-related projects

History shows that governments abhor transparency and accountability on large, IT-related projects. That is why the publication of a report into the Child Support Agency is refreshingly out of character.

It is revelatory, authoritative and, as far as we know, unique. And it offers the sort of insight Computer Weekly's Shaking Up Government IT campaign, which aims to encourage ministers and departments to be more open and accountable about the progress of large projects, has been calling for.

The Department for Work and Pensions commissioned the report from researchers at Bristol University and gave them access to managers, staff and clients. Interviews with managers were a separate exercise from focus groups of staff. This meant that staff were able to speak freely without concern about the reactions of higher grades.

The 154-page report highlights good and bad - but the bad is far more forceful and revelatory than if auditors had asked questions only of the corporate board. It shows, for example, how pressurised staff knowingly entered incorrect information into the system, that claims were stockpiled to meet targets and callers were directed to answering machines.

We congratulate the Department for Work and Pensions for giving the researchers access to its staff and for publishing the findings. All large, mission-critical, IT-led change programmes in government should be subject to such a review.

It was not a financial, technical or managerial audit but it highlighted the breadth and depth of problems at the CSA in a way that the Office of Government Commerce's Gateway reviews and National Audit Office investigations do not seem to have achieved.

It leaves its readers asking whether parts of the CSA have lapsed into anarchic practices and whether its problems can be solved.

If such reports were commonplace, managers of large programmes would be able to ask themselves first and foremost, not how scaleable the hardware and software is, but the bigger questions such as whether the culture and practices of the organisation are intrinsically unsuited to the deliberate rigidities imposed by an IT-led reform.

Computer Weekly has campaigned for an independent review of the IT-led modernisation of the NHS. The report on the CSA shows what the word "independent" really means. We urge all managers of major IT-enabled projects to read it.

If nothing else, it shows how a large organisation can descend into chaos if a critical IT project is implemented as a technology scheme instead of as part of a reform in culture and working practices.

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