Send in the tigers to fix public sector IT projects

It seems the chancellor has woken up to the argument that while an aggressively "wired" public sector seems like a jolly good...

It seems the chancellor has woken up to the argument that while an aggressively "wired" public sector seems like a jolly good idea for some, for others, notably the National Audit Office and the Treasury, there is growing alarm at the way the money is being spent.

According to one source, the Probation Service has been paying its support contractor £11,000 every time it calls out an engineer at the weekend. With costs like these it is hardly surprising that Gordon Brown is disturbed, and it explains why IT suppliers are so keen to help the public sector along its increasingly expensive path towards its 2005 goal of digital Nirvana.

It is the irksome return on investment idea that keeps nagging at my conscience. The Government is spending billions of pounds upgrading, improving, evolving and managing the nation's information real estate and yet, more than six months after the site collapsed, it cannot even get the 1901 census back online.

The public sector complains that it does not have enough money to push through its IT programme but we could build a hospital a month with what we waste on aborted pilot projects and lose on IT projects that wildly over-run, such as National Air Traffic Services' Swanwick centre.

Here is a suggestion - not my own - which I believe comes from the right direction. The Government should set-up a "tiger team" to oversee the hugely expensive public sector projects that industry, in its wildest dreams, would never risk trying.

The team might be 12 people with long track records and experience of IT and project management at the macro level. Once a project looks set to collapse, this team would go in to cut through the fog of civil service excuses and public relations damage control and do what has to be done to save or sacrifice failing public sector mega-projects. It would be part rescue, part sanity check.

What frightens me is the prospect of a public sector

in denial and the very real spectre of failure. There is obvious friction between local and central government where IT strategy is involved, and all the Pathfinders in the world are not going to eliminate the "them and us" perceptions overnight.

IT managers in large corporations have sleepless nights thinking about £1m projects and yet the Government calmly believes it can succeed with £100m initiatives. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and when they go wrong what happens? A serious review of the responsibility, strategy and technology, or the application of lots of expensive string and Selotape behind a smokescreen of excuses?

I believe we need to urgently review our progress towards the goal of becoming an information society. Why are we doing what we are doing? Does the argument that the strategy is one of spend avoidance, rather than a search for return on investment, actually hold water?

Simon Moores is chairman of the Research Group

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