If you know that your new computer system, designed to process many millions of pounds for hundreds of thousands of people has 52 critical defects, 14 of which cannot obviously be fixed, and that of the 40 previous audits during the development period, 70% had identified serious concerns, would you deploy? Well, of course, it depends on the risks vs. the expected benefits…
Recognizing that, in any project, the project team can get so close to their task that they lose a level of objectivity, you ask a third party to cast an eye over it and give an independent opinion of whether it is ‘fit for purpose,’ and if deployment should take place. If the conclusion of this ‘independent’ third-party is that the risks are acceptable, then of course you are likely to deploy. However, what if three years later your staff have to use 600 manual ‘workarounds’ to the system to get their job done, and productivity has fallen? Then, it would seem, the system wasn’t fit for purpose.
This, it seems was the opinion of UK public spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) in its report about the development and implementation of the systems for the UK Child Support Agency (CSA), released in June 2006. The CSA systems were developed by EDS during a three-year period, and went live in March 2003, after getting the green light from the UK Treasury’s ‘independent’ Office of Government Commerce (OGC).
To avoid the project failures of the past, as part of a cross-government project management methodology, the OGC is charged with reviewing major government IT projects and assessing both fitness for purpose and, because it is part of HM Treasury, value for money. At so-called ‘gateway reviews’, it gives a ‘traffic light’ assessment of red, yellow, or green. The NAO report criticizes both the CSA and EDS, highlighting unclear and changing requirements, poor communication, and also staff resistance to the new system.
Unfortunately, this is something we have heard about before. However, it is the apparent failing of the OGC to recommend the stopping of the project that seems most concerning, and demonstrates yet again that, in public sector IT, project management disciplines are often rejected for political expediency.
A minister had said that the new system would go live in March 2003; there would have been great embarrassment in government if it hadn’t. Staff had been promised a new system to ‘help’ them deliver a better service, and they would potentially be demotivated if it hadn’t appeared. Furthermore, the system was only part of far-reaching organizational changes in the CSA aimed at improving efficiency and thus reducing cost, and the concern was that stopping the system deployment would disrupt the change program. It is believed that these were the purposes the OGC decided the CSA system was fit for.
The time has come for a truly independent review procedure on UK government IT projects, throughout their lifecycle, not just the current ‘autopsies’ that the NAO has to conduct with the oh-so-similar verdicts. There exists the skills and the organization to do it in the shape of the NAO, and it should be noted that the NAO was asked to do just what is being suggested here for the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) for the National Health Service (NHS) in England and Wales. However, as we saw in the NAO’s first, much-delayed, and seemingly ineffectual report, at present the relevant department has to agree with the NAO findings before they are published.
So that requirement should be removed, and the OGC resources for gateway reviews should be transferred. Yes, we will still have project failures, but hopefully they will be identified earlier, and losses – and thus in the long-term damage to political credibility – will be reduced. No, it will still not be perfect, but it has to be better than the current process.
Source: OpinionWire by Butler Group (www.butlergroup.com)