Public Accounts Committee despairs over endless cycle of IT failures

Edward Leigh, the chairman of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, reads regular reports by the National Audit Office on government IT failures....

Edward Leigh, the chairman of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, reads regular reports by the National Audit Office on government IT failures. So it is natural that he should feel exasperated.

But his frown was never more pronounced than at the start of a recent hearing of his committee on C-Nomis, an IT project run by the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and, to a lesser extent, services supplier EDS.

The system's main purpose has been to provide a single database of offenders, to help with their management, from court appearances to release, and sometimes beyond that.

But the National Audit Office found that there was so little control of C-Nomis that the government spent £161m on systems without anyone knowing how or exactly on what.

Leigh knew in advance what the civil servant before him was going to say in defence of C-Nomis: that the project's problems were history and all was well now.

Leigh was facing Phil Wheatley, director general of the National Offender Management Service in the Ministry of Justice. Leigh began the hearing on C-Nomis by saying he has much respect for Wheatley.

"Mr Wheatley," said Leigh. "You know that I have a very high opinion of you personally, but this is a dreadful [NAO] report: a delay of two years; a project which was supposed to cost £234m which in fact is costing the taxpayer £513m; it was supposed to deliver a single database and there will be three separate databases.

"You will come with the classic defence line, that of course you were not there, it is all in hand now, you have learned the lessons, in the sort of school that permanent secretaries learn when they come to this committee.

"However, I have had all this before and I just do not know whether there is any point really carrying on, frankly."

Leigh did carry on, though. He asked why problems with IT projects re-occur. "The same old lessons have not been learnt: over ambitious, weak project management and all the rest. Give us an honest answer."

Wheatley said the C-Nomis project was "badly run in the early stages" but now "we are delivering a programme which will give us real gains and which uses the taxpayers' money wisely".

To Wheatley's credit he helped Leigh and other MPs establish the main causes of the failure of C-Nomis.

First, the project board met once every two months but did not manage the project because it accepted the programme team's assurances that the scheme was delivering on time and to budget.

Second, accurate reports to ministers on the problems were non-existent. Alan Williams, a senior member of the committee, said it was "incredible that for three years nobody senior knew what was being delivered for the money spent". Wheatley replied that people had asked questions but were told that "actually the programme was all going well".

Third, C-Nomis was managed as an IT project, not an IT-enabled change programme.

Fourth, the senior responsible owner of the project had never run an IT project before. MPs on the committee were unable to ascertain why she had been appointed SRO. She has since left the Civil Service.

At the end of hearing a still-frowning Edward Leigh was more exasperated than at any time we have known.

"Clearly this project was handled badly, it achieved poor value for money, many of the causes of delays and cost overruns could have been avoided. I could make some grand eloquent statement about how we never expect to see this happen again in the Civil Service, but I suspect I would be wasting my breath."

What Leigh didn't know - and it would not have been prudent to have pointed it out to him at that time - was that his hearing on C-Nomis came 26 years after the same committee began its first inquiry into apparently systematic failures of government IT projects.

The Office of Government Commerce says that the management of IT projects is better today than ever. Tell that to Edward Leigh.

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