Gung-ho approach is the road to disaster

Unfounded optimism is damaging public sector IT

The recent woes of the Rural Payments Agency offered a new insight on why government projects fail, with both the current head of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the minister responsible at the time admitting that there was "a conspiracy of optimism" among the civil servants involved.

A partial explanation for this fatal state of mind came in former Defra minister Lord Whitty's comment that officials gave a rosy view because "they felt that was the message they needed to give to those who were overseeing them".

By coincidence, a clearer reason for this sort of behaviour was provided by a senior, now ex-civil servant, Carne Ross, in his evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee on the Iraq war.

He noticed a tendency for officials "to tell ministers what they wish to hear in order to advance their own individual prospects.... in order to get promoted you have to show yourself as being sympathetic in identifying with the views of ministers and, in particular, the prime minister."

A recipe for disaster

Couple this with the fact that a senior civil servant is almost certain to be moved before the chickens resulting from their decisions come home to roost, and you have a clear recipe for disaster a recipe that has consistently delivered failure after failure in the government sector in the past 20 years.

You can have all the procedures and gateways in place, but if you have gung-ho civil servants and ministers with no experience of running a large-scale operational business who ignore these warning signs, then you are going to go on repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

A simple solution

The answer to the problem is simple: tell senior civil servants and their ministers that they are not moving post until they have successfully delivered on their current project, and set appropriate measures for determining success. You will then get a much more pragmatic and sensible approach to system development.

The ideal senior management team for kicking off a project is one which has just had - or almost had - a disaster, and one which knows it will still be around when the new project is delivered. You then get sensible and pragmatic decisions, rather than exercises in wishful thinking.

Ministers need to realise that success comes, not from pouring ever-larger sums of money into the never satisfied maws of large consultancy firms in the naïve belief that the private sector knows what it is doing.

Rather, it comes from running small-scale pilots involving the users - both internal and external - at every stage, driving out complexity, and above all, taking the time to negotiate contracts so they do not turn into the open-ended gravy trains that still seem to characterise most government IT projects.

Richard Collings is an independent consultant working with smaller government agencies and larger charities on specifying, procuring and rolling out complex information systems

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