For government CIO Ian Watmore, IT is the servant of business and sound business approaches can help bring complex IT projects in on time and to budget
I am often asked what the government is doing to improve the delivery of public sector IT projects. Of course there is no such thing as an IT project, only business projects enabled by IT; and by far the majority of these projects succeed, despite being among the most complex on the planet.
However, I acknowledge that we have had a decade of high-profile Public Accounts Committee reports on problem projects. And, like buses, none comes for ages then three arrive at once. This increases the perception of an endemic problem.
The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) has led the way over recent years in identifying key causes of failure and implementing a raft of measures to improve delivery.
This has established the government professions of procurement and programme and project management, and massive progress has been made. But collectively we seek to do more as we learn more.
A search of the internet identifies various "laws" of computing and management and I have chosen some of these to illustrate each of the areas to which we are applying renewed focus:
1 "A complex system that does not work is often found to have evolved from a simple system that works perfectly."
Downstream problems in implementation can often be tracked back to the original policy or business idea.
For this reason, the government and Intellect (the IT suppliers' organisation) have created a concept viability approach, involving industry, to test out ideas early in the lifecycle, as has been used effectively with the ID cards project recently.
2 "The number one cause of computer problems is computer solutions."
The history of computing is littered with examples of solutions looking for a problem. This requires business managers to be very focused on the business case and subsequent benefits realisation of any project, as, for example, has been successfully achieved by the Crown Prosecution Service's Compass case management programme.
3 "It's free and it's worth every penny."
Value for money does not necessarily mean picking the cheapest solution on offer. The OGC's approach to procurement excellence has seen major improvements in government procurement.
Working with Intellect and the Senior IT Forum we are continuing to learn and improve our purchasing decisions, putting latest thinking into our next major procurement at the Department for Constitutional Affairs.
4 "I've started, so I'll finish."
Projects which get abandoned after protracted delivery failure have often been in trouble for a very long time, yet the plug is not pulled earlier.
By implementing portfolio management techniques, the value of continuing can be seen more objectively, with problem projects ended early, as happened recently with the lorry road user charging scheme (which was dropped).
5 "I'm not allowed to argue, unless you pay."
The famous Monty Python argument sketch is a parody for bad buyer/supplier relationships in which the parties constantly argue about changed orders and detailed requirements, and the relationship ends in nugatory trench warfare.
To avoid this, we are implementing the Intellect IT Supplier Code of Best Practice to reflect our desire for supplier partnerships in which we get reliable delivery with value for money and the supplier gets sustainable business at a fair rate of return.
6 "Big bang system implementations usually precede mega-explosions in the business."
As was reported last month in Computer Weekly, we are keen to introduce programmes like ID cards incrementally, with planning dates but no cliff edge dates, so we can learn lessons as we go.
Big bang implementations will occasionally be necessary, but in government circles these are now viewed as "courageous".
7 "He who laughs last probably took a back-up."
All systems are at their weakest when brand new, yet often in government, brand new systems are required to support new legislation or regulations from day one, when customers and end-users are also struggling to adopt new processes and patterns of demand.
We are asking business managers to expect problems and put into place contingency and business continuity plans from the outset to act as a shock absorber to problems when they occur.
There are, of course, many other aspects of successful delivery, including good luck. But in professionalising the delivery of IT-enabled business projects we are adhering to the famous sporting philosophy of "the more we practise the luckier we get".
Ian Watmore is government CIO and head of e-government