Accounts committee report contains lessons for supporters of ID card scheme and calls for a revision of the Office of Government Commerce's review policy
Ministers and senior Whitehall officials determined to press ahead with the national identity cards scheme would do well to study a report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee that was published last week.
Introducing the report, MP Edward Leigh said, "Far too often, major IT-enabled projects in government departments are late, well over budget, or do not work at all - an enormous waste of taxpayers' money."
That is why the committee chose not to simply report on yet another public sector IT disaster, but to look at the effectiveness of the government's main agency involved in preventing such problems recurring: the Office of Government Commerce.
Like many other reports from the PAC, which oversees public spending, it makes salutary reading.
The committee focused in particular on the OGC's Gateway review process. Leigh said, "Of all the OGC initiatives, [Gateway reviews] have the most potential to secure significant improvements in IT procurement."
Unfortunately, the committee found this "potential" was too often not realised. The statistics make grim reading.
A total of 440 reviews on 254 IT projects have been carried out, with 33% of projects entering the review process after the business case had been prepared.
Sixty two reviews have completed Gateway 4, which looks at a project's readiness for service, the PAC heard. Of these, only eight (13%) proceeded to Gateway 5, which assesses whether the expected benefits are being delivered.
This failure to put initial project business cases up for external scrutiny or to allow outside analysis of whether the expected business benefits had been realised, was condemned by MPs.
Equally concerning to MPs was the apparent failure of those delivering high-risk government IT projects to learn from past mistakes.
By March 2004, 50% of the projects reviewed were given green status in the Gateway review's traffic light system. A further 28% were amber, which allows the project to continue while remedial action is taken, and 22% were red, a sign that the project was at risk and in need of immediate action.
Eight projects received red status at two consecutive Gateway reviews: a sign that they faced major difficulties. Of all projects that have undergone more than one review, 22% have got worse as they went through the process, and 40% failed to improve their status.
The PAC noted that the issues raised by Gateway review teams have remained consistent since their introduction in 2001. It said, "This suggests that despite a clear body of evidence, departments are failing to foresee obstacles to successful delivery."
If Gateway reviews are the best chance of improving the delivery of high-risk IT projects, they have yet to make a fundamental difference. This failure was a key reason for Computer Weekly's campaign last year to increase the public scrutiny of government IT projects through the publication of Gateway reviews. It is a view the PAC agreed with and the OGC seems determined to resist.
- Gateway reviews should be published. The committee said, “There is a strong case for the publication of Gateway review reports, particularly given the repeated failures of public sector IT-enabled projects and programmes in recent years.”
- The Treasury should determine criteria for withholding funds from IT projects where departments choose consistently to ignore stages of the Gateway process.
- The National Audit Office should be informed of all projects that receive consecutive red Gateway reviews.
- Government departments should spell out their plans to put their projects through Gateway 5, which assesses whether the benefits of a project have been fully realised, lessons learned and value for money secured.
- Government departments’ centres of excellence should receive as a matter of routine all Gateway reports, and provide feedback to the OGC on the quality and usefulness of reviews.