Argument won, time for action

For many months the need for openness and honesty has been trumpeted by Computer Weekly in its campaign to shake up government...

For many months the need for openness and honesty has been trumpeted by Computer Weekly in its campaign to shake up government IT. These are now the themes which pervade a 99-page report of the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee on how to improve the success rate of major government IT-based projects.

Although we are pleased that the Work and Pensions Committee's report marks a victory for Computer Weekly's campaign, what is more important is that if the recommendations are endorsed by government, it would mark a turning point for large-scale government IT projects, which have a reputation for failing.

Of the many government reports on why there are so many failures of major IT projects, none has focused on the real problem: a lack of transparency and honesty. Too often ministers and departmental heads try to pass off failure as success, they disingenuously blame anyone but themselves for the mess, or they give evasive answers to direct questions.

That is why the report on an eight-month inquiry by the Work and Pensions Committee is so refreshing: it tackles the culture of secrecy head on.

Openness is important because it gives all stakeholders in a complex project the sense of a shared challenge and risk, making them less likely to throw up their hands in despair as soon as the project hits a serious but solvable problem.

It also makes it less likely that technology and IT staff will be wrongly blamed for failures that have more to do with politics, overly tight deadlines set by ministers, over-ambitious specifications, poor planning or lack of involvement of the project's end-users and other stakeholders.

It is a further tribute to the Work and Pensions Committee that its members seriously considered the views of those who appeared hostile to the idea of greater openness and transparency. Some of these detractors put up good arguments.

John Stuart Mill observed that powerful bureaucracies will do nothing they perceive as being against their interests. Ministers and departmental heads love secrecy. So we are not too hopeful that the government will endorse the committee's measured and sensible recommendations.

But Sir Archy Kirkwood, chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, says he will not be put off by rejection. We will back him, and his committee, in seeking to persuade the government to act on the committee's findings. As Kirkwood says, his report marks not the completion of a long inquiry, but a first step towards reform.

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