Thursday 30 August 2012

"Significant weaknesses in management of ICT programmes" in the Public Sector in Scotland

Today Audit Scotland published the report: “Managing ICT contracts—An audit of three public sector programmes” [1]. This report is a “lessons learned” examination of the management of three Scottish public sector projects identified for raising concerns over the delay or cancellation of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) projects.

In summary, the report comes up two leading key messages [p.3, 1]:

  • “There were significant weaknesses with the management of the three programmes.”
  • “A key factor in the failure to deliver the programmes as intended was the public sector bodies’ lack of specialist skills and experience.”

It then recommendations that [p.4, 1]:

  • All central government bodies should:
    • “ensure that senior managers and boards use the questions in Appendix 1 [of the report] to scrutinise and challenge the management of ICT programmes.”
  • The Scottish Government should:
    • “assess the skills required for future central government ICT programmes and ensure these skills are accessible to public bodies.”
    • “review the purpose, use and frequency of Gateway Reviews to consider the scope for improvements.”
    • “ensure that it has strategic oversight of significant ICT programmes across central government.”
    • “promote the learning arising from ICT programmes by ensuring that the findings [all the] ‘lessons learned’ exercises, and all future exercises, are distributed appropriately across the public sector and that public bodies have access to the appropriate skilled resources to be able to implement them.”
    • “seek assurances from those central government bodies with ongoing significant ICT programmes that the issues raised in this report regarding weaknesses in management, are not also present in those programmes.”

Why are we still making such obvious mistakes?

On the face of it this all seems to be entirely sensible. The report is very clear and succinct, it raises important issues and is well presented. But the biggest question it raises is the one question it doesn’t ask: why are such obvious mistakes being made in the first place?

Take a look at the Appendix [p.21, 1] of the report and the “Key Questions” it suggests should be asked of the management of key projects. Here are the first four in the “Planning” section:

  • Has the public body developed a detailed procurement plan?
    • Has the public body assessed whether the scope of the contract is achievable?
    • Have options for the procurement route been evaluated?
    • Is there a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities between suppliers and client?
    • Has business continuity and future exit and transition strategies been considered at a high level at this stage?

These might seem important, but let’s remember that these questions are targeted at senior public sector project managers: not at volunteers who have never managed a project before. To a project manager this is the equivalent of reminding an adult to look left and right before crossing a road.

How could you possibly manage a project and not check that, “the scope of the contract is achievable”? How could you enter into a procurement exercise without evaluating the options? Of course a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities is core to the success of a project. Of course, the risks associated with failure and change need to be assessed and mitigated against at the highest level they can impact.

So, why do project managers need to be reminded of these things? Why do we need to be reminded of any of this when it says almost nothing different from the 2003 “Government IT projects” report [2]; or the 2004 HM Treasury letter, “Delivering success in government acquisition-based programmes and projects” [3]; or the Prince2 Healthcheck chapter in the 2005 edition of the Prince2 project management standard [p. 413–420, 4]


So why are obvious mistakes being made?

  • Are the project managers under-qualified for their roles?
  • Are these practices considered to be paperwork exercises rather than critical parts of the job?
  • Is there a culture which undervalues these things?
  • Do senior managers scrutinise reports or do they consider the reports to be no more than paperwork that allows “sign off”?
  • Are critical parties too overburdened with responsibilities to give due time and attention to these matters?
  • Is there disagreement about what the best practice is?
  • Who are the individuals who are responsible for guaranteeing that this work is carried out?

These are the unanswered questions that really matter. These are the questions that lead to a true identification of what has gone wrong and what can be put right.

But, who is going to take the bull by the horns? Who, in the de-skilled public sector and its proliferation of boards and governance committees is going to put their head above the parapet and take a stance? Is the real truth here the fact that the Scottish Government has lost the drive and capacity to fix itself? The paperwork machine has turned full-circle: even the audit reports intended to hold government to account are now just a paperwork exercise that tick a box and allow everything to meander onwards towards fully embraced incompetence.

And then there’s the next level

So, yes, we urgently need to do something to dilute our national incompetence. But funnily enough, as a nation, we should actually be trying to achieve something much better. We should actually be trying to deliver some of the best services in the world with the best technologies in the world, in the most environmentally efficient ways in the world and then we should be selling our skills and achievements to the rest of the world. Do we really not believe we are capable of that?

If we are going to be world leading (and we can be), then we need to realise that this audit report doesn’t even begin to touch on what is best practice in the delivery of IT projects in the UK, let alone in the world. We need to recognise that tightening up governance procedures is not the way to save public money or deliver rapid and high quality results. Let’s remember that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service took just short of two years and £2,300,000 just to plan a project and decide not to go ahead because it was going to be too expensive!

Whilst the document is written for the government in Westminster, there is a lot of truth in the Institute for Government report, “System Error–Fixing the flaws in government IT”:

Most attempts to solve the problems with government IT have treated the symptoms rather than resolved the underlying system-wide problems. This has simply led to doing the wrong things ‘better’. [p.9, 5]

Indeed, whilst the Audit Scotland report feels like a polite and professionally produced attempt at teaching a grandmother to suck eggs, the “System Error” report feels like the considered opinion of professionals talking to professionals. I wonder if anyone in the Scottish Government has read it?

  1. Audit Scotland, “Managing ICT contracts—An audit of three public sector programmes”, August 2012.

  2. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, “Government IT projects”, July 2003.

  3. HM Treasury Letter: “Delivering Success in Government Acquisition-based Programmes and Projects”, DAO(GEN)07/04, 30 March 2004. Reproduced in Appendix 3, pp. 49–53 of National Audit Office, “Delivering successful IT-enabled business change”, 17 November 2006:

  4. OGC, “Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2”, 2005 Edition (and most probably in the latest edition too). Despite being the UK government’s “standard method for project management”, the standard documents are only available commercially and I know that public sector staff are sometimes unable to obtaining a copy on the grounds of the expenditure.

  5. Institute for Government, “System Error—Fixing the flaws in government IT”, March 2011.

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