Behind Closed Doors:Public sector enemy number one

Colin Beveridge examines the reasons behind high profile public sector IT project failures and looks at what must be done to get...

Colin Beveridge examines the reasons behind high profile public sector IT project failures and looks at what must be done to get better value for taxpayers' money.

Public sector IT has always had a fairly poor reputation in the UK. To many thrusting IT professionals, the public sector reeks of cardigans that have seen better days and the prospect of years of cyber-drudgery, brightened only by the twice-daily appearance of a tea trolley.

But is that a fair perception - are things really like that in government departments these days?

Food for thought
My very first freelance role, back in 1984, was to design a new revenue handling system for a district council. That was a real eye-opener for a bright young lad from the private sector world of leading-edge software houses, as I spent almost the entire assignment working on the kitchen table. The kitchen was next door to the finance director's office so he could keep me away from his own computer staff, thus avoiding the risk of any cross-contamination between the "expensive contractor" and his less well-paid permanent workers.

If there was to be any skills transfer between the local data processing department and myself, it would have to be by osmosis through several brick walls.

So, for a month or two, it was just me, the cooker and the kettle, interrupted only by the occasional foray into the kitchen by brave souls from the native computer department, desperate for a stealthy brew and a glimpse of whatever magic I was weaving with my flowchart template.

I must admit to heaving several sighs of relief when I had finished that assignment and finally
"To many thrusting IT professionals, the public sector reeks of cardigans that have seen better days and the prospect of years of cyber-drudgery"
Colin Beveridge
moved back again, into the very much faster-moving commercial world.

Top-heavy difference
If that had been my only exposure to public sector computing, I might have just put it down as an isolated, if somewhat bizarre, experience.

Since then I've worked with dozens of IT departments, including a representative selection of central government, local government and quasi-government bodies. Every one of these organisations has been radically different from the commercial sector companies with which I have worked, in one very fundamental respect: the management culture.

I suppose that is only to be expected because in the private sector the IT function has usually been more orientated towards achieving measurable results, whereas the public sector departments seem to have been particularly geared towards fulfilling pre-determined roles.

Perhaps I had better clarify that observation, as it is based on an extremely fine nuance of thought. What, if any, is the actual difference between achieving results and fulfilling a pre-determined role?

Well, for a start, in the private sector, the key business drivers for IT are all about sustaining and developing the profitability of the venture - so everything is geared towards balancing costs with benefits. Generally speaking new technology investment in the commercial world depends on the existence of a viable business case. Delivering the anticipated benefits is how we measure our success - hence my supposition that the private IT function is geared towards achieving results.

All services are subject to change
But when we look at the public sector situation, we find that the key drivers for IT are all about enabling policy initiatives and, more often than not, the policy initiatives are subject to arbitrary change, or cancellation. This sometimes takes place at very short notice, because government policy, as opposed to legislation, is subject to the trials and tribulations of the political world so that what seems to be a very good ministerial idea one week, may well become completely undesirable the next.

In a "democracy" that's the way politicians have to operate and one reason why so many public sector computing initiatives are inherently susceptible to failure from the outset.

Even my fairly limited exposure (less than 10% of my IT career) has shown me how often government policy changes have seriously impacted on important IT programmes, mid-flight. It's not just a question of moving the goalposts either. Too often the whole game is abandoned after consuming considerable time and resources.

Which is why I believe that most public sector IT departments are there to fulfil a pre-determined role as a standing army of technologists, rather than to achieve results. Quite simply, their basic function is to use their technical skills and resources, if possible, to deliver current policy and to be prepared to accommodate unexpected severe changes of direction at incredibly short notice, in computing terms at least.

We all know that scope creep, lack of resources and change are the three greatest enemies of cost-effective IT development projects. In the commercial sector we move heaven and earth to avoid these risks - and yet they seem to be endemic to the management culture within public sector computing.

Of course, we are not just dealing with a single, mega-sized IT division - the problem is compounded by the existence of myriad government departments, each with their own agenda and policies.

The element of surprise
Is it any wonder then, that we get so many high profile public IT fiascos? In fact, the more I look at this problem, the more that I feel that we are lucky to get any working IT at all from the public sector, given its highly complex organisational structure which is constantly pounded by unremitting tidal waves of political policy.

Unfortunately it's not going to get any better - unless we can persuade our political masters to change their ways, radically, by applying the same rigour and quality of thought to their political strategy management as their counterparts in industry.

At the moment, it seems like this fundamental problem is not properly recognised by the Government - they simply lay any fault firmly at the door of those poor souls tasked with implementing their polymorphic policies, without understanding their own contribution.

Outsourcing in fashion
Instead of understanding that the complexity and cost of public sector computing are direct functions of the political agenda, the only solution so far to rising IT costs has been to outsource more and more government IT to third-party providers, in the hope that the cost of public sector computing can be contained, or reduced.

But what we really need is a root and branch overhaul of the structure of public sector IT - to reduce the organisational complexity and the impact of policy change.

Until we take these basic steps, I can't think of a worse possible scenario for outsourcing - we might just as well print Project Change Requests on pads made from £50 notes.

Do you agree?
Is organisational complexity the reason why so many public sector IT projects fail? >> reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the Web site. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Colin Beveridge is an interim executive who has held top-level roles in IT strategy, development services and support. His travels along the blue-chip highway have taken him to a clutch of leading corporations, including Shell, BP, ICI, DHL and Powergen.

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