Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Government IT Projects - A way forward!? (A long second post)

So today the Public Accounts Committee published their report into the NHS Care Records system. As has been reported the findings from the PAC concludes that the project has failed, cost a huge amount of money and failed to deliver.

I must state, I did at one time work on the project and the findings are hardly a surprise.

Once again we are in a position where a large scale Government IT project has failed and cost the tax payers a huge sum of money.

In the IT circles within the private sector, Government IT projects are often discussed, laughed at and gawped at from afar - many looking on in disbelief at what has gone on; some even from working on the projects staring at their project plans/scope in disbelief in what they are being asked to do. We all ask time and time again "how can this keep happening" "why do they not learn the lessons" "if this happened in the private sector we would be sacked or the company would go bust!".

Unfortunately what always seems to happen is an enquiry where some element of blame is thrown around, whether it be at the Government departments charged with delivering the project, or aimed at the vendors/contractors charged with delivering the solution or party political blame - but never do we get to the root of the problems which caused the overall project to fail.

It is also important to explain this last paragraph as it always seems to get missed. There is almost always a clear distinction between roles in a project where a company is asking an external party to provide a solution to a requirement - you have the role of defining the project and delivery of the overall project which falls to the initiating company, in this case Government (Civil Servants) - and the design and delivery of the solution to meet the companies needs, which falls to the external party who has been successful, usually, through a bid process.

So where does it all go wrong?
Well lets look at it this way, the external companies who are delivering the solutions are picked, I would imagine, because they are successful companies who have a track record in delivering solutions to their customer base. After all they would not be successful companies if a large proportion of the solutions they delivered did not meet their customers needs. Yet in recent times we hear time and again that government IT projects fail, that they have gone wildly over budget and still not delivered a fully working solution.

Now if this was one solution provider you might think, well why do the government keep using them, but there are numerous different companies that have been involved in these different projects. If we look at the NHS project, originally four companies where picked to implement the solution, the idea being this would provide competition and avoid the risk of committing to a single supplier which may not deliver. Yet over the course of the project, the number of suppliers has halved, either from withdrawal or contract termination and of the remaining two we find in todays report that they have failed to deliver; perhaps now calling into question the original scope and project definition - if the original scope and definition are are wrong how could the project ever succeed?

So looking at the history of Government IT projects what is the common denominator in all these projects? The Government IT and the civil servants charged with running and delivering the projects!
There we go with apportioning blame again - it's all the Central Government and Civil Servants fault!
Well yes and no - in reality both sides need to share the blame of previously failed projects, but the Government needs to stand up and take responsibility and change the way it runs IT projects.

How can this be done?
Project Definition & Running the Project
Firstly, the Government needs to take a long hard look at how the projects are defined, run and critically who should do this. The vision or requirements certainly have a place within Government but I would question whether the Government itself has the skills and experience to then initiate and run the project from looking at the catalogue of past failed projects. There are plenty of private sector companies with vast amounts of experience in successfully running large scale IT projects. Unfortunately the Governments track record is very poor at running large scale IT projects.

Secondly, I would question wether the Governments Civil Servants have the experience to provide technical design authority and project governance in what are usually solutions utilising multiple technologies brought together to provide a complete solution - again this is an area that the private sector has a wealth of experience in delivering.

Some will argue that using the private sector in these roles introduces higher risk and cost - I would counter that with saying, with the right contracts (another thing government needs to look to the private sector for) this should actually mitigate risk and reduce cost. One figure that seems to be missing with the NHS project is what the Government department running the project has cost so far, we hear all about how much has been paid to the service providers, but not what the internal cost of running the project has been.

The Solution Providers / Solution Design
It would seem that where projects have gone wrong before, is when the solution providers have been given too much scope to design the solution without sufficient technical governance and over site from the Government, primarily because it would seem the Governments Civil Servants do not have the experience and knowledge to provide it. Whereas projects run and governance provided by private sector companies who have this experience should stop the solution providers often coming up with hugely complex solutions, where actually there is probably a lot of simplification that can be made if the design is properly reviewed. This is exactly what happens in the private sector today, an exchange of ideas between the customer and solution provider ultimately ends with an optimal solution design and a clear cost and scope for delivery. Project governance from both parties should then provide clear documentation and process for any scope changes and associated costs - something the PAC report says is missing from the NHS project.

If I was to take it a stage further, as these are projects funded from the public purse, why not put the designs out for public consultation!? Maybe a radical idea, but my local authority has started putting it's policy documents out for public review, after all they will affect us all, so why should we not get an input to how our money is going to be spent!

So to conclude a mammoth second ever blog post - there is much to be done by the Government to stop the continual IT project failures and it appears the present Government has started the process. But I fear until the Government carries out full enquiries and actually looks to the private sector for assistance at all levels of the project nothing will change.

Lets all hope for some radical thinking in the very near future.

**Please remember the ethos of this blog - these are my views and observation and I welcome constructive and reasoned debate. So please feel free to comment and discuss further

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