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Audit Scotland shares lessons learned from failed IT projects

In a ‘lessons learned’ report, Scottish auditor sets out five principles that should be considered when managing government IT programmes

Following the failure of several Scottish IT programmes, Audit Scotland has set out a series of principles to help manage projects in the future.

The report, entitled Principles for a digital future: Lessons learned from public sector ICT projects, highlights ways to make future projects succeed.

Pulling together the findings from several recent Audit Scotland reports on project failures in the country, it sets out five principles:

  1. Planning
  2. Governance
  3. User engagement
  4. Strong leadership
  5. Strategic oversight and assurance

According to the report, the Scottish public sector has spent £4bn on ICT in the past five years, £856m of which was spent on IT procurement in 2015/16.

IT projects need careful planning

Issues often occur in the starting phase of the project, largely because the business case has not been properly developed and aligned or because the magnitude of the project has not been not fully understood.

“It is fundamental at the start to understand the need and clearly define the benefits you want. In assessing the business need, be guided by what the people who will use it want to achieve, rather than by technology. It is important not to develop policy and ideas in isolation from the rest of the business,” the report said.

“Digital experts need to be involved at the start so that policies and ideas are practical and will work in reality, and can be easily designed and developed into any system. Set out the need and the benefits clearly in a business case and agree them. Benefits should be monitored and assessed throughout the project.”

The report also highlighted the importance of understanding and appreciating the task ahead, along with understanding current business processes and what is needed to make change happen.

“It is important that organisations also help suppliers to understand the business processes and environment. Looking at how other organisations have undertaken similar projects can be a useful starting point,” the report said.

“Re-using or adapting existing software may be an option, but organisations must understand how much time and effort it can take to adapt a product.”

Learn from previous IT project failures

One of the country’s most high-profile IT failures in recent years was the NHS 24 IT system deployment in autumn 2015.

The project was part of the Scottish health board’s Future Programme, which aimed to improve patient service, supported by modernising its phone and online technology. Shortly after go-live, however, NHS 24 was forced to pull the system after concerns around patient safety.

The project costs spiralled out of control, with current projected costs 73% over budget. A new go-live date is set for December 2017. In its own “lessons learned” report published in 2016, NHS 24 admitted the programme had been a systemic failure.

Audit Scotland’s report on the programme identified weaknesses in the process dating back to 2011, when NHS 24 went out to procurement for the project highlighting programme management and the governance of its technology renewal project as key issues.

The auditor’s lessons learned report said skills and experience at a senior level is key to a successful project. 

“It is important not to develop policy and ideas in isolation from the rest of the business”
Audit Scotland

“Many reports on failures of ICT projects include commentary on the impact of weak leadership, or a high turnover of senior officers, and a lack of commitment. These issues can have a serious impact on the project,” the report read.

It emphasised that all senior leaders should show a clear commitment to the project if it is to succeed.

“Projects need clear lines of accountability. Where roles and responsibilities of senior leadership are unclear, this leads to miscommunication and issues falling through cracks. It is important that everyone is clear who is responsible for making decisions. For example, what types of decision leadership or governance boards will be expected to make, and knowing when issues will be escalated, and to whom.”

Another high-profile failed IT project was the Scottish Police’s i6 programme, which aimed to deliver an integrated IT system to police forces across the country.

In July 2016, however, Accenture, the SPA and Police Scotland mutually agreed to terminate the contract after a review found it would be impossible to deliver the system on time and on budget. 

The auditor found that the project “ultimately collapsed due to a damaging loss of trust between those involved and fundamental disagreements about what the programme needed to deliver”. 

People key to IT project success

The lessons learned report said that, in general, public sector organisations do not have a good track record of supplier and contract management.

“Organisations need to have appropriate skills to act as an intelligent client, to challenge the supplier and fully understand the progress and risk level,” the report said.

It added that stakeholders, both internal and external, should be involved in projects from their inception.

“This allows the organisation to fully understand what is required and how people need and expect the system, process, or service to operate in practice. Even for internal users it is essential to understand how they need the system or process to work, otherwise it will become a source of frustration,” the report said.

The report claimed technology alone would not deliver change, with training and culture key to making projects successful.

“Many reports highlight the detrimental impact of a negative culture, but many projects continue to underestimate the role culture plays in a successful project. A critical element of success in any project is people,” the report said.

Read more about Scottish IT projects

  • NHS National Services Scotland has launched its Spire system to share anonymised patient data for research purposes. 
  • RBS is using technology from IBM in a pilot using a software robot to provide direct customer support.
  • NHS 24’s troubled IT system won’t be fully rolled out until December 2017 as the projected costs of the programme spiral to 73% over budget. 

Read more on IT for government and public sector

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