The government is to introduce three initiatives aimed at improving public sector IT projects following a series of damaging high-profile failures.
Public sector contracts are notoriously difficult to negotiate, and introducing changes after the deal has been signed is a complicated process that often causes delays and overspend.
The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) has consulted with industry and now wants to see a single representative from both sides take responsibility for future projects. It believes this would give projects greater flexibility and help resolve any problems encountered earlier.
In future, suppliers bidding for a contract will be asked to nominate a senior executive to take responsibility for ensuring success.
A similar role for civil servants was established in September. The OGC is currently training civil servants to ensure they have the necessary negotiating skills to deal with experienced IT suppliers.
"In the past, projects have been run by committee and there was no one to carry the can," said an OGC spokesman. "Nothing focuses the mind more than having a specific person whose neck is on the line."
A Code of Good Practice governing the procurement process and guidelines for evaluating value for money in complex procurements has also been produced.
The government believes that in the past senior staff from suppliers conducted negotiations. Once projects were awarded, however, it was often left to junior staff to run the project, which increased the likelihood of failure.
Suppliers will now be asked to nominate at the tendering stage a Senior Responsible Industry Executive who will oversee the project.
The initiatives were hammered out by the Senior IT Forum, a joint government and industry body. In the coming weeks an advisory body will be established and will begin looking for public sector bodies to nominate projects to follow the new practice guidelines.
"The real litmus test will be getting more projects completed on time and to budget," said the OGC spokesman.
Public sector bodies face the problem of being caught between the need for flexible contracts with suppliers and red tape that stipulates how they can award contracts, said John Higgins, chief executive of industry group Intellect.
Earlier this year spiralling costs forced the Lord Chancellor's Department to tear up its agreement with Fujitsu Services, which was to have supplied case management software to magistrates courts.
Speaking after losing the contract, a Fujitsu Services spokesman highlighted the immense difficulties of negotiating changes to contracts after the deal had been signed.
Similar problems have blighted the introduction of new computer systems at the Child Support Agency and the Inland Revenue. In May this year, the overspend on public sector IT projects for the previous ten months topped £100m.
"It does the industry no good at all to have its reputation tarnished by the stories of failure," said Higgins.
Services giant EDS, which has a raft of government IT projects, last week announced a halving of its third-quarter profits. Costs incurred through poor performance of European contracts were cited as one of the main causes for this decline.
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