Wednesday, 15 August 2007

The problem with government IT

I have worked for government agencies over several years but I cannot for professional reasons mention names of organisations. The question we often ask here in the UK is - why do government IT projects go wrong so frequently and in such a big way? Recently the British Health Service IT programme has been revealed as crippled and the system to protect the UK from terror threats was years late. The abandoned and much criticised UK ID card scheme was in turmoil with increasing over-budget costs. So what exactly are the problems?
  • Schedule overruns
  • Budget overruns
  • Systems not working when delivered
  • Poor performance of some government staff
  • Private outsourcing partners over-charging
  • Constant changes to requirements
There is not much that we can do about the last point - changes to requirements sometimes result from news media reporting of government IT plans and consequent effects on politicians. Politicians who head government departments under criticism are always quick to demand changes to carefully designed systems in development. Every system has its critics. All the news media editor needs to do if find and pay them for a good 'wasting taxpayers money' headline.

Schedule overruns result from design changes as discussed above, poor system design, poor implementation and the fact that IT consultants and suppliers see government as a gravy train. They often give unsuspecting officials systems which are over-designed and over-engineered. Poor planning also results in government IT resources being unable to deliver what has been agreed at a higher level.

Budget overruns result from the above factors and the fact that supplier companies tend to over-charge government, where departments often lack staff with IT knowledge and business acumen during the contract negotiation stages. I have heard many stories of private firms adding superfluous items  to the bill for government IT contracts.

Systems not working - this is caused by the box-ticking culture in government where officials want to tick boxes to say what their department has delivered this, this and this as per plan. They are less concerned to hear if it works well or if what has been delivered is sustainable and scalable. By contrast in business, a lot of time goes into making sure that systems have to work and to continue to work to make or save money.

Poor performance of some staff - I am told that in the UK government department which handles shipping, in order to meet diversity quotas, people with no knowledge of shipping are promoted into key posts. Thus steadily the department is losing its core competence. This is happening throughout local and central government. Also private companies are flexible on pay and can poach staff from within government departments. Government cannot react to this because staff are in rigid grades and cannot be offered extra rewards to stay. The grades of government workers do not reflect actual performance - only what their job description says they are supposed to do. What happens over time is that the best staff are invariably poached and the worst remain, and little is done to tackle poor performance. Government departments rarely have the periodic clearouts of dead wood that are so common in commerce. From what I have seen the leaders of failed projects can still expect career development - in commerce they would often be fired.

Finally - why do government IT projects fail in such a big way? The old boxing saying - the bigger they come the harder they fall. Government projects tend to be too ambitious - driven by politicians' dreams rather than the caution of commerce.

Poor Johnny Taxpayer. He can expect no relief any time soon.


Mildred said...

Keep up the good work.

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