A new approach is needed to avert public sector failure
Public sector IT-based projects have been given a hard time recently - the failures have won banner headlines but the successes have been largely ignored.
However, the failures have usually been serious for the people - both government employees and citizens - caught up in the consequences. That there have been successes does not change the fact that the way the public sector approaches and manages projects needs an urgent overhaul to avoid more failures in the future.
Ian Watmore, the government's chief information officer, has rightly argued that we cannot abandon schemes that should improve how citizens and the public sector interact simply because previous government IT projects have failed, and he recognises that investment alone is not enough. So far, so good.
He also makes all the right noises about experienced professionals and best-of-breed solutions, and has undertaken to increase levels of professionalism in IT. And he is quite right to do so.
However, he also notes, wisely, the need to recognise that IT problems are usually the result of bigger business challenges. And herein lies the real problem - it is the bigger business challenges that need to be the focus of IT-related government projects - not the IT itself.
Bluntly, the IT product should be one of the last things to be considered, and this makes life a lot more difficult for Watmore. He is supposed to solve problems with IT - but IT alone cannot solve the problems faced.
Focus on technology
At the heart of many IT failures is a focus on technology and how it can be shoe-horned into place so that processes can be followed which do not actually help citizens, business, or even the public sector to work better.
Failure to understand the scope and scale of the requirements is another major factor. As Watmore says, not many private sector projects have to deal with the numbers of requests and people that government schemes do, and those that do often suffer the same problems when it comes to whether the system works and end users can actually use it.
It is easy to see why these projects focus on IT to such an extent. IT is measurable - it is easy to put dates, times and pound (or euro) signs next to each stage of delivery. For a public servant having to count every penny and explain what is being done and when, IT is much easier to work with than hundreds of randomly and frighteningly different end-user requirements.
Obstacles and objectives
The latest disaster-in-waiting, the NHS IT programme Consulting for Health, faces precisely this problem. It will have many thousands of users and each will require different levels of access, and need to share different databases and receive different training. That is before you introduce the Freedom of Information Act or Data Protection Act requirements into this mix.
How these challenges are to be resolved should be faced first, before looking at what technologies might be required. Otherwise, even once the technology is identified and installed successfully (and we all know how badly that is going) the very people it is supposed to serve will have their jobs made harder and more complex - not exactly the objective the government had in mind.
Although it is a horrible phrase, the only answer is to get back to basics. The public sector should be putting each project's aims ahead of how they are going to be achieved - IT as the enabler, not the objective.
Senior officials need to make sure that they can closely monitor the entire project, not just the IT installation. With programmes as complex as these, there will be problems and things will go wrong. Identifying issues and risks early and reacting positively to problems both within IT and across other project areas where any changes will have an impact, is critical.
No matter how professional IT suppliers and consultants may be, if the technology is the primary project focus, there is a higher chance that the project will fail. If Watmore wants to really turn public sector delivery around he needs to stop thinking as a chief technology officer and start thinking as project manager - or he is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Phil Reed is chief executive of corporate performance software group Perspective Solutions