Saturday, January 05, 2008

Stop Press! Government waste money on IT failure!

I do enjoy it when I see articles in the Guardian that seem surprised about the level of failure and cost of Government IT projects. This morning they have "revealed" that the Government has pissed £2bn up against the wall on IT projects that have been cancelled or failed. I put "revealed" in quote simply because what they mean is that they added up the figures in the public domain already. The way they have suddenly woken up to things that techies like me, Computer Weekly, The Register and others have been banging on about for bloody ages is a tad irritating though.

The thing is the evidence for these complete balls-up have been around for ages. For a start few people will actually know that this financial year alone the Government will spend £12.4bn on IT projects, new, ongoing and cancelled of which a significant percentage will go to consultants. Failure is not really news to many of us though. For example, last September it was revealed that 87% of all the projects in review stage were were in jeopardy of overspend, delays or cancellation.

Then there is DEFRA who spent £13.6m on a pilot project that was not even fit for purpose. It failed in the design phase and yet they pushed ahead with spending on it anyway, built a pilot and then decided it wasn't worth it. Probably now is a good time to remind people about LIBRA, the court system that was in pilot for 16 years, has cost billions, didn't even have a project plan by late 2006 and by February 2007 no one was sure how much it had cost anymore.

Of course there is also the ill-fated NHS Connecting for Health too. In fairness this is one IT project whose failures have been well documented. Yet the lies of the Government have never really been put under the spotlight. Back in 2006 the National Audit Office reported the project cost had doubled by £6bn, meanwhile the Minister responsible said it was on budget and on time and that the "NAO has confirmed the cost has not overrun".

The Department of Work and Pensions, as the Guardian notes, has been one of the biggest wasters of money though. In March 2007, Parliamentary questions revealed that they had wasted almost £300 million on two projects alone that were cancelled. The signals of endemic failure have been flying around for so long it's amazing so few have noticed. Of course the real winners are the consultants. From 2002 to 2007, the DWP managed to spend £2,14bn on all its IT projects (ongoing and cancelled) and 24% of that figure went on consultancy fees, but they are usually off-balance sheet.

Then you have the DVLA, who had a contract with IBM that almost doubled from £287.3m to £437m in an ongoing project called, "Partners Achieving Change Together" that started in 2002 with the intention of lowering costs! Remember that it's not just cancelled projects that waste money though, sometimes the Government proposes IT projects, spends money and then nothing actually happens.

The thing is though, it's not like the Government doesn't know what's going on and hasn't been forced to say or publish indicators that the mainstream media have ignored. There is evidence that the Government has been actively shredding documentary evidence of its own failure for a start. In June last year, just before Gordon Brown left the Treasury, it was revealed by Computer Weekly that an order to shred Gateway Reviews of IT projects was made. These are documents that chart the progress and success of an IT project - a hug story really but one that remained largely in the IT World.

As far back as 2006, the then Environment Secretary David Miliband admitted, live on Radio 4, that the Government did not have "fame for competence with IT projects". Did anyone really pick up on yet another moment of honesty from a Secretary of State? Then there was Jack Straw who admitted that the Government gets ripped off and are rubbish at technology. He told the Commons Constitutional Affairs Select Committee that in everywhere he had worked in Government, IT projects "end up over budget and over time and are not quite up to spec".

It's good that the Guardian has given prominence to the IT failures of Government, it's just a shame that it had to be when the figure of waste had reached an astronomical level first. The endemic failure of IT projects over the past ten years, along with the recent failure in data security, makes the case for an a formal IT Ministry dedicated to dealing with technology across Government has never been stronger.


A (just) surviving IT contractor said...


I don't know why you bother going on about Gvnt IT.

It's all a big money laundering exercise.

Any system the Gvnt uses to run any of its business I could write on my own in a few years, hardware costs excluded. Systems development isn't a black art.

Hire the right people, sack useless people (and this is where it all falls down because at least 50% of IT staff are useless which leaves 50% to develop the systems while fixing all the problems created by the useless 50%), keep the initial design simple, validate the basic model, then develop in phases not forgetting to document. Simple really.

Of course I have oversimplified a bit but I have developed systems for over 20 years as an independant contractor on three continents (in banking which is quite a rigorous environment) so I must have some clue.

Why do you think Accenture et all paid the Gvnt to introduce IR35. Not for the tax take, just to herd the brightest and best into slavery working for management consultancies so they could prfit even more without any competition.

anthonynorth said...

Personally I'm quite pleased the government is proving incompetent in this area. If it worked, they'd have us all on their databases for everything, checking what we're doing, what we think ...
The need to 'know' is endemic in all government. May they cock up IT for ever.

mitch said...

Thats a good point,If these systems ever worked properly we would truly be stuffed.

Anonymous said...

why aren't the opposition making more of this?

rightsideforum said...

Yes it is surprising that they've done their homework and concluded that the government has wasted billions of pounds of our money on failed IT projects.

It's something those in the industry did indeed reveal many moons ago....(didn't stop some of them taking the money though)

Mostly Ordinary said...

I still find it funny that Prince 2 is the apprant gold standard for IT project managment.

David Bodden said...

Maybe, one day, someone will also ‘reveal’ the links between the companies that supply these systems and Labour party? The association between Capita and Labour is well known, but there are many links in the others too.

IR35 and (fraudulent) IT work permits are just two examples of the government policies that have been ‘encouraged’ by the big suppliers. On the latter point, the government is abandoning any pretence of making the employers look in the UK first. It was ‘revealed’ this week that from July, employers can ignore the UK workforce completely and hire from abroad.

Anon @ 13:56 asked, “Why aren’t the opposition making more of this”? Indeed, WHY? There is plenty of evidence to show that bad things are going on. This is a matter for the parliamentary ombudsman, the audit commission, and the police. However, the Conservatives choose to ignore it all. It’s very suspicious.

Pissed on a Saturday night said...

David Bodden,

IR35 and the labour party are all designed to crush the middle class intelligentsia of sn independent mind.

They have offshored our jobs, and I see it every day, loads of indians filling up banks all over Europe, what type of bloody permits are they on? It's bullshit. You can't buy property in India and you can't work there, but they can come, ten to a room, no social costs and send all their cash home. Sorry about the rant, too much JD but I could go on all night. Our own Gvnt screwed us for a shilling.

All ranting alcohilically induced and therefore I am a VICTIM!

Trumpeter Lanfried said...

It's not just the IT systems which are failing. We now have third world standards of administration in almost every government department.

The reason? Government in this country has outgrown the capacity of ordinary human beings to run it. The juggernaut is so large that it is effectively out of control.

What next? Ken Clarke put it succinctly: "The Government is going to run out of money." Unfortunately it will probably be a Conservative Government which carries the can.

Jeremy Renwick said...

It niggled me a bit that they had detailed this list of massive failures but had done no analysis of why this was.

What struck me is that I expect that one of the common denominators is that all of these projects were managed using the PRINCE 2 project management methodology, it is impossible to do any IT project in the public sector without it. Now I am not saying that this is why these projects failed, I don’t have access to enough information to say, but it is a common factor and so should be analysed.

The other likely common factor, linked to both PRINCE 2 and the typical government approach to procurement is the practice of Big Requirements Up Front. This is where the users sit down and decide what they want the system to do in detail, partly so that external contractors can pitch for the development contract and their bids “objectively” compared for “best value”.

This is likely to be the 3rd common factor, use of external contractors, competitive tendering, the perception of transfer of risk and confrontational legal agreements. The problem is that risk is not transferred in reality; when was a government contractor last successfully sued for a failed project?

As Scott Ambler points out in the article in the link above, the whole BRUF approach has been proved to be flawed for a number of reasons

1. The requirements change because the business changes. This is inevitable and as true in government (average tenure of a minister?) as in the private sector.
2. People’s understanding of the requirements change. In reality most end users can only adopt the “I’ll know it when I see it” approach as they don’t know what technology can do and people just change their minds
3. People make up requirements. If they are only being given one chance to specify what they want before it is tendered, they will put in stuff “just in case”. This is a particular problem in the public sector as IT suppliers to government are notorious for charging through the nose for changes in requirements (bid low, make margin on the inevitable changes)

There is a different way. Use a project management approach called DSDM and change they way you procure IT systems. Don’t specify the project in detail up front, just do enough to provide a sensible budgetary estimate and procure developer time rather than a finished system. This does mean a different approach to risk management but as the Guardian’s list of failure shows the current approach does not work!

(Also on