Learning lessons of Libra's history

We congratulate the Department for Constitutional Affairs on its openness. But, for all the department's sincere assurances (see...

We congratulate the Department for Constitutional Affairs on its openness. But, for all the department's sincere assurances (see page 18), the Libra project to introduce a unified case management system in about 380 magistrates courts is worryingly ambitious.

The focus is on technology, rather than changing the business processes in courts, many of which have their own way of working. The new system tries to accommodate quite a few of these differences, which may make the software so complicated that no amount of hardware within reason will solve its performance problems.

The best things about the Libra project are the undoubted competence of the project team and the longing among users for new case management systems. But is the department attempting the impossible? Will its fourth attempt since 1989 to introduce national case management systems end as disastrously as the others?

This underlines why Computer Weekly's Shaking Up Government IT campaign is so important to the future of large-scale public sector computer projects. The campaign calls for ministers and departmental heads to report to Parliament on the progress or otherwise of major projects, including deviations from plans, budgets and contracts.

This would give MPs the depth and breadth of information to ask the most searching questions about projects such as Libra. They would be able to ask the questions that ministers would rather not know the answers to.

Many ministers stay in one job only a short time. They want well-publicised successes before they leave. As with the introduction of systems in support of tax credits, they agree to deadlines and targets which prove impossible to meet.

And some want to hear only good news. If things go seriously awry, this is put down to teething troubles; minutes of project meetings carry forcefully positive messages; and the project becomes a speeding carnival lorry full of cheering enthusiasts. Its faulty brakes will slow the vehicle but not stop it.

The scrutiny we are campaigning for would give the lorry a fully-functioning set of brakes. Taking the time for a thorough, independent review could turn potential disaster into success, as happened with the long-delayed scheme for new air traffic control systems at Swanwick in Hampshire.

But meanwhile the Libra team must toil without the benefit of real-time Parliamentary scrutiny. If it succeeds in delivering a unified case management system throughout all courts in England and Wales by April 2006, we will be delighted - and amazed.

Lessons from false starts of courts system>>

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