Nearly a quarter of a century ago, in a report on government computing, the Committee of Public Accounts warned of the dangers of over-optimism on large projects. But it is unclear who was listening. Not the first-division civil servants it seems.
In June 1984, at a hearing of the Committee of Public Accounts, the response of top-level civil servants to past IT failures was to offer MPs the temporary palliative of an assurance that lessons would be learnt from past failures.
The Treasury ignored the baffled scepticism of the committee and approved incrementally larger and riskier schemes, while potential suppliers reached for their calculators and ministers planned a series of timed press releases.
But the lessons were not learnt. In the National Health Service’s National Programme for IT (NPfIT) the mistake of over-optimism has been writ large.
The latest report of the Public Accounts Committee, released today, succeeds in peeling off the skin of the NPfIT – and finds horrible things beneath. The facts in the report present the NPfIT as the most irrationally optimistic government project of recent years.
Over-optimism is, of course, Whitehall’s euphemism for offering ministers a project with short timescales, capped costs and in-built simplicity to get the scheme approved. Over-optimism has afflicted countless IT projects in many departments, from welfare systems in the 1980s, to case management systems for magistrates’ courts in the 1990s, to the £7bn Defence Information Infrastructure and the £13bn NPfIT this century.
For decades, the big failures have overshadowed the excellent IT work within government which is inconspicuous because the budgets are tightly controlled and the results are unworthy of press releases.
One clear answer lies in a different way of doing things; a different way of approving big projects. In short,
the introduction of parliamentary scrutiny. MPs should scrutinise IT projects and programmes before they are approved, instead of when patients complain to them of chaos at the local hospital.
Computer Weekly’s campaign for parliamentary scrutiny of big, publicly-funded investments in IT-related projects and programmes before they are formally announced starts here.