Platitudes don't make for good IT

Rarely has so little been said in so many words. The government has reacted with 17 pages of platitudes to the cogent and...

Rarely has so little been said in so many words. The government has reacted with 17 pages of platitudes to the cogent and succinct recommendations of a committee of MPs which has investigated government IT projects.

At first glance, last week's government response was respectful of the points made in a report in July of the Work and Pensions Committee. The committee had backed Computer Weekly's recommendations on improving accountability and transparency, which we said were at the heart of all major IT disasters.

But when we read carefully the government's response to the committee's report, we had the feeling that was compiled by software, not humans.

The first one or two sentences acknowledge the recommendations of the Work and Pensions Committee. The next section comprises past press releases and government announcements about the work of the Department for Work and Pensions. At best, these statements have only a vague relevance to the committee's recommendations. And where the committee's report makes a request for specific action, the government's response ignores this or is politely dismissive.

After each one of its IT disasters over the past 30 years, the civil servants and the government have issued similarly bland statements.

The response is also an insult to those who keep government IT systems running smoothly and find their status is debased by the poor reputation of government for delivering successful projects.

Public sector IT professionals know, as we do, that most major failures have little to do with the systems, and much to do with an organisation's culture, a lack of training, a lack of understanding of the impact of IT on processes, or inadequately informed political management.

Yet too often the systems are blamed by those who do not have the full facts.

The hope now is that Gateway Reviews of IT projects will be published under the Freedom of Information Act. Some departments - Work and Pensions and the Department of Health - will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the age of freedom of information.

Meanwhile, we deplore the government for saying to the committee in essence: "Trust us - we know what we are doing, and you do not need to know."

We, and the committee, would rather form judgements on the condition of IT projects from facts and stringent process of accountability than platitudes, untestable propositions and unsubstantiated assurances.

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