House of cards set to fall?

The government says ID cards will cost around £100 each, while The London School of Economics says they will cost £300. But this dispute becomes almost insignificant next to the likely cost of poor project management.


The government says ID cards will cost around £100 each, while The London School of Economics says they will cost £300. But this dispute becomes almost insignificant next to the likely cost of poor project management.

If the LSE is right about basic cost miscalculations, the government's outdated approach to project delivery could push the final cost as high as £600 per card.

This is not scaremongering from the anti-ID card camp - I strongly support their introduction if properly implemented. Unfortunately, failing public sector IT projects are no longer the exception and huge cost overruns can be confidently predicted.

It's not so much an opinion as a simple observation: recent public projects have derailed with alarming consistency. Delays to the UK Passport Office alongside failures such as the magistrates' court Libra project have cost the government billions.

These distinct projects all suffered from fundamentally flawed project management. If this happens to ID cards - and there is no sign of change so far - the final cost could be staggering.

The ID cards campaign needs to set in place a solid project management foundation. A few basic principles apply.

The benefits must be set in stone at the outset. It's essential to drive consensus and buy-in, as the key executers will be at the lower levels of government hierarchy. At the moment, there is a distinct lack of clarity on benefits and costs, which will inevitably hamper the project from the start.

Removing politics is a tall order

Perhaps most important from a cost perspective, the government needs to ensure rigorous project design and mobilisation, as 80% of the project's costs will be influenced in this initial phase. Planning projects on this scale cannot be a political process - forecasts need to be accurate and realistic.

The government and its contractors have an interest in playing down projected costs and this has set many projects on a direct route to failure.

Removing politics from the equation is a tall order, but the government's management of third parties could be improved at no political cost. All third parties will claim to be 100% committed to the project. But linking 50% of their professional fees directly to the project's success will quickly show who has genuine confidence in their plans. Any third party unwilling to share the risk should be discounted on day one.

The government also exerts an unhealthy influence on third parties by rewarding methods, rather than execution and delivery. It is clear that public projects often suffer from an over-reliance on methods and a lack of pragmatism. At the end of the day, it's the results that matter, not the reports. Without a common language, vision and focus on results, methods can become academic.

Communication is the lifeblood

The lifeblood of any project, effective communication, is usually also in short supply. Projects consistently fail to see critical pitfalls until they open up in front of them, despite a culture of over-reporting. And again, this is the result of pursuing methods and people-hours rather than results.

Reports are printed, posted and binned with impressive frequency. They can amount to a swamp of communication in which key issues fail to reach the right people. Constant communication is not enough - it must be intelligent. It must map all parties by relevance, priority and urgency and it must report on live issues, rather than acting as a lagging indicator. Reports will be important, but a few key memos can make a huge difference.

Finally, the government suffers a distinct inability to make sound decisions quickly. Every project requires a tightly-knit executive team with a proven ability to kill issues, remove roadblocks and mitigate project risks. I suspect even public servants would agree these are not common skills among government agencies.

I paint a bleak picture, but it is crucial the government fundamentally reforms its approach to project management if failure is to become the exception. ID cards will be immensely valuable, but delays, overruns and loss of public confidence could provide serious challenges to implementation.

A Daily Telegraph YouGov report showed eight out of ten people fear the implementation of ID cards will be a fiasco. The public knows there's a problem - when will the government realise?

Simon Rawling is global head of project management at consultancy PIPC


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