Thought for the day: It's time to open the door

Whitehall must end secrecy on government projects, says Richard Bacon

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For government projects to improve, we need more scrutiny, more openness and more accountability, says Richard Bacon.





Whether we are running away from sabre-toothed tigers or manufacturing aircraft, people usually learn from failure. The philosopher Karl Popper believed all knowledge comes from criticism and learning from our mistakes.

The great exception to this principle is government IT projects. The "lifecycle of a public sector IT failure" described in Computer Weekly's 22 June issue was painfully familiar.

From the Wessex Regional Health Authority case to the Libra project for magistrates courts, the history of government IT projects catalogues a fundamental inability to learn from past errors.

Public loss of faith
More pain is on the way. The Offender Assessment System in the Probation Service is in trouble. A magazine for GPs described the national programme for IT in the NHS as "more likely to be a fiasco than the Dome".

The government can no longer ignore these issues. Public faith in government and politics is at rock bottom. The Inland Revenue tax credits disaster produced fear and misery for vulnerable people. Chaos at the Passport Office ruined the holidays of thousands. The Criminal Records Bureau debacle caused huge problems for nurseries, schools and parents.

Taxpayers are shelling out vast sums on IT systems that do not work properly and that no one wants to use. Worse still, IT failures put lives at risk.

As squaddies opened containers in the Kuwait desert just to see what was in them, it became clear the Ministry of Defence could not adequately track equipment deliveries. Notoriously, although there was enough body armour, it was not in the right place. Yet the lack of proper tracking software was identified 13 years ago.

All governments have wrestled with these issues. By now they should have understood we are looking at systemic failure. If we are to improve things we need more scrutiny, more openness and more accountability. One simply does not learn if there is no learning curve.

A good step would be to adopt the suggestion of Computer Weekly and publish the project Gateway reviews run by the Office of Government Commerce.

Some worry about confidentiality. But as Peter Gershon, recently retired boss of the OGC, said, "There are still far too many projects and programmes reviewed by Gateway teams where, frankly, project planning is little better than something on the back of a cigarette packet."

One could abolish scribblings on cigarette packets by routinely putting them in the spotlight. Bad projects are like anaerobic bacteria. They cannot survive exposure or oxygen but thrive on secrecy and lack of candour.

Perhaps the defining characteristic of successful IT projects is the close link between customer and supplier. Yet at present government does not even trust suppliers enough to tell them Gateway reviews are happening.

In 1994 the Cabinet Office published a study on using consultants in Whitehall, which said, "It is difficult to do good consultancy for a bad client, and difficult to do bad consultancy for a good client." That report - led by new OGC boss John Oughton - was one of many emphasising the need for top managers to understand and own projects.

Yet just last month the Public Accounts Committee had to tell Customs & Excise, "There should be proper management of consultants," and, "Projects should have clearly identified senior responsible owners," as if Customs were running its first ever project. Oughton now has the chance to shift the culture surrounding how projects are led and delivered.

The US example
The US has gone a step further. Recognising that secrecy has contributed to major IT project failures, the Americans passed the Clinger-Cohen Act, which requires departments to report to Congress during the life of a project, and to highlight deviations from standing orders.

With a similar system here, we would hear about red lights much sooner. There would be more chance of bad projects being stopped or put back on track.

Treasury minister Ruth Kelly has agreed to look at introducing such a legal framework. If such open-mindedness continues, it could be the start of a new era. It is time to say, "Out with scribblings on cigarette packets. In with clarity, candour, oxygen and the light." But don't hold your breath.

Richard Bacon is a Conservative MP and sits on the Commons Public Accounts Committee

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