IT projects among government’s biggest failures

A think tank with connections to the Conservative party has tallied the UK government’s project management track record, and has found that IT projects count among its worst failures.

Of all government projects currently ongoing or completed in the last two years, it is claimed, the biggest budgetary overrun has been the NHS’s ill-fated IT refresh. According to the latest estimates, the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) has overrun in cost by 450% to £10.4 billion.

Other notable failures include the Libra courts management system, which has overrun by 237% to £341 million, and the C-NOMIS offender management IT system, which has overrun by 119% to £279 million. Both of these projects were overseen by the Ministry of Justice, which was, according to the Taxpayers’ Alliance report, the worst performing department of government in terms of project management.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance argues that such budgetary overruns illustrate the need for an improved project management culture in government. “It is essential that a more considered approach is taken to capital projects, and they only go ahead on the basis of a realistic assessment of cost,” the group said in its report. “Even more importantly, they must be managed competently to conclusion.”

This claim is backed up by a recent report from the Public Accounts Committee that documented a laundry list of project management gaffes that derailed the C-NOMIS project.

The report also criticised government departments’ reliance on third parties in project delivery. “Using consultants and outside advisers on projects is not only expensive but can perpetuate the lack of knowledge in departments,” it said. “It is also a useful way of avoiding responsibility for project failure.”

But while the governments’ reliance on third parties is criticised, the role that suppliers play in project failure is not examined. Arguably, however, blame does not necessarily lie with the buyer. Southwark Council, for example, is currently suing IBM for £700,000 over a master data management system it claims was ‘unsatisfactory’, although IBM firmly denies this claim.

The Tory approach

Speaking in February 2009, shadow chancellor George Osborne presented the Conservative Party’s critique of government IT procurement. “Government needs to stop thinking that when it comes to procuring IT systems, big is always beautiful,” he said.

“We need to move in the direction of what are known as ‘open standards’ – in effect, creating a common language for government IT,” he said, which would mean “big projects can be split into smaller elements, which can be delivered by different suppliers and then bolted together”.

“We need to follow the example of businesses all over the world and take advantage of ‘open source’ technology,” he added.

In July 2009, another think tank with links to the Conservative party proposed greater involvement of private organisations in public IT projects. The Centre for Policy Studies argued that the likes of Google and Microsoft could be brought in to operate public health records, not only to improve cost effectiveness but also to reduce the amount of data the government holds on private individuals.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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