Government ministers should learn to account for IT failures

Openness is key to effective project management

"If things go wrong with government IT we should hold our hands up, fix the problem or learn the lessons." So said Cabinet Office minister Pat McFadden this month.

Nobody could argue with this. But when things go wrong with government IT, nobody does hold up their hand and admit responsibility. Investigations of the causes of dozens of large IT-related failures show that organisations tend to react to crises in similar ways: they try to cover up.

But a corporate antipathy to criticism, and a welcoming of positive comments only, or even affected optimism, can be early warning of an IT disaster.

In private and public sectors alike, secrecy and cover-up can be part of the DNA, but it is more generally injurious in the public sector - which is a pity because hiding the specific lessons from mistakes debases the work of thousands of IT staff in the public sector who are helping to keep hundreds of complex systems running smoothly in what are often difficult circumstances.

Cover-ups continue

It takes only a small number of cover-ups over major failures to sustain the impression among MPs, taxpayers and the media that government IT and incompetence are synonymous. Yet the cover-ups continue.

Computer Weekly's requests under the Freedom of Information Act for details of particular IT projects involving the Department for Work and Pensions, the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), which oversees IT projects in central government, the Department of Health and the Cabinet Office have been rejected emphatically.

The OGC, for example, is spending tens of thousands of pounds of public money on legal fees to fight a decision by the information commissioner that the results of Gateway reviews on the progress of the ID cards project be published.

Some OGC executives would prefer to be open about mistakes made on government IT projects, but the organisation's culture, and that of Whitehall generally, requires that openness is seen as an evil spirit that visits sleepers during a nightmare.

Whitehall officials prefer to publish reports that praise everything to do with IT, though few lessons will be learned from running commentaries from the observation tower at Heathrow Airport on the safe landing of planes.

Refreshing change

So it is refreshing to note that the Identity and Passport Service is being open about the lessons and mistakes in its key IT projects (Computer Weekly, 16 January). If all organisations followed the lead of the Passport Service, it would help to dispel the mystique over IT project management.

More importantly, openness and honesty in reporting how and why projects have gone wrong would go a long way to making directors, or ministers, more accountable for failures.

While there is secrecy, they can take comfort during any IT-related failure that the full facts will probably not emerge. If they know the truth will be told, they may do more in future to avoid a costly IT disaster.

More on the blog

For more on the lessons learned from the Passport Office and other IT projects, read Tony Collins' blog.


Read more on IT project management

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