A report launched today by UK e-government minister Ian McCartney promises to transform the poor record of government IT project management.
Called Successful IT - Modernising Government in Action, it has been published following a Cabinet Office study into the handling of major government projects in the UK and overseas.
At home, the government's track record is dismal. Many IT projects have had problems, resulting in tenders frequently being delivered late, over budget and, on occasion, scrapped at tremendous cost to the taxpayer.
Suppliers too have been hit under the oft-criticised Private Finance Initiative (PFI) introduced five years ago where suppliers develop a system or service and then lease it back to the government. ICL suffered a £180m loss after having its Social Security contract cancelled, and Arthur Anderson lost an estimated £100m after overbidding to rewrite the National Insurance database.
Now, the government report lists 30 recommendations to improve the performance of major projects. These focus on business change, strong leadership, supplier management, improving staff project management skills (including regular reviews) and breaking projects up into smaller chunks to reduce the risk of expensive failures.
Project checks will take the form of peer reviews by managers in other government departments, with private sector experts being called in to monitor projects in highly specialised fields.
The report has been welcomed by industry body the Computing Services and Software Association (CSSA), particularly with its emphasis on improving project management.
"Project management is an area we feel strongly about. An improvement in the cadre of project managers is necessary," said Charles Hughes, chairman of the CSSA.
E-government minister Ian McCartney is emphatic that the report's recommendations will improve standards, especially in the area of project management.
"In the past many projects have been successful, but a lack of preparation, structure and lack of communication at minister level have been responsible for a number of failures," he said.
"There were problems with suppliers' proposed systems, and at times in the past, governments have been sold pups. The next generation of procurement will be substantially different to this generation. If we were seen as a soft option for suppliers in the past, we're not any more," said McCartney.
Alex Allan, the government's e-envoy responsible for implementing the report, said that civil service management had recognised the importance of IT. In the past, projects have been dismissed as "technical matters" and viewed as somewhat inferior by civil servants; but, says Allan, this no more.
"There is a much greater realisation that IT projects are vital to the department's business plan," he said.
As well as tracking its own project managers, the government plans to build a database of suppliers' performance.
"There will be a new central database to track projects and provide data for learning across government. We will create an environment where the skill levels among our project managers are significantly higher... skills investment is vitally important," said McCartney.
And while the past problems of PFI-procured projects were acknowledged by McCartney, he said PFI would remain an option for managers, but that better preparation at the commissioning stage and regular reviews would reduce the risk of future disasters.
While the government has pushed its project management initiatives, the opposition has focused on the bad practice Labour has failed to improve in its three years in power.
Andrew Landsley, Shadow Spokesman for the Cabinet Office, said: "What is most significant about this report is not the conclusion of the need for clear responsibility for projects and their integration into departmental programs, but that so many glaring examples of bad practice are revealed."
"This report shows that although the government may talk about modernisation in reality they are way behind the edge in IT implementation," he added.
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