Problems with public IT projects

It sometimes seems slightly unfair to keep picking on the same targets, but the UK IT press has been dominated in recent weeks by tales of woe related to the IT activities of the government.

In many ways, these projects face an uphill battle from the outset. Firstly, many of the works undertaken are larger in scale than many private-sector deployments, which means a greater level of complexity, and therefore a greater scope to encounter difficulties. In addition, the large number of stakeholders and often unclear project management responsibilities make it easy for work to go off-track, leading to delays and increased costs. And finally, by being in the public sector, tales of failure are revealed and discussed in depth, which is not (necessarily) the case for private sector catastrophes.

But the latest cases bring some new attributes to the table, including attempts to re-negotiate contracts which are already in place, and a potential shortfall of funding to follow-through a project which is already underway.

Data security failure

ComputerWeekly said that the government has failed to rollout data security safeguards, two years after the loss of CDs containing "highly sensitive" details of 25 million citizens. It said that the efforts "ran into the buffers following contractual disputes with IT suppliers which do not want to carry the cost".

Apparently, suppliers signing new contracts since July 2008 have agreed to comply with the new measures. However, those with contracts pre-dating this have not reached an agreement on the measures, and these deals govern "the bulk of government data". Intellect, a group representing the interest of the suppliers, said that changes should be made "in such a way that it doesn't burden suppliers unnecessarily", and "any changes to contracts are done under the commercial agreements already agreed".

It was suggested that suppliers feel "unfairly criticised", and that the level of data security demanded now was not what was called for when the contracts were originally signed -- and on which financial calculations were based. Which does raise the somewhat unsettling fact that when it first signed the contracts, the government was prepared to accept a lower level of security for a lower cost, not seeing the error of its ways until it was too late, and the horse had already bolted.

Migration problems

Computing reported that the availability of funding was delaying the full adoption of a new IT system in the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, with the department currently continuing use of an earlier, flawed system alongside the new infrastructure.

The technology used by the Child Support Agency, the predecessor of the current Commission, was largely blamed for a situation where the agency failed to collect £3.5bn in payments, of which 60% is now considered "uncollectable". The new system is more automated, provides web access, and will eventually enable a 30% reduction in running costs and a 30% increase in output.

But the transfer of cases between the systems, which is set to begin in 2011, is a costly process, and there is concern that with public sector spending constrained, funds will not be made available to do this. Should the cash not be forthcoming, the body will have to "look again" at how it could transition to the new system.

Project overspends

Information Age detailed a report from The Taxpayers' Alliance, which argued that IT projects count among the incumbent government's biggest failures, listing a number of efforts which had not met the mark. It should be noted that the Alliance has links with the main opposition party, making its assessment somewhat biased at the least, although it is also difficult to argue with the numbers it has presented.

The biggest overspend has been on the National Health Service's "ill-fated IT refresh", which has come in 450% over budget at £10.4bn. Other listed projects include a courts management system, which has overrun by 237% to £341m, and an offender management system, which doubled its costs to £279m -- two out of these three were under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice, which was deemed the worst performer in terms of project management.


Anthony Plewes

After a Masters in Computer Science, I decided that I preferred writing about IT rather than programming. My 20-year writing career has taken me to Hong Kong and London where I've edited and written for IT, business and electronics publications. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Stewart Baines where I continue to write about a range of topics such as unified communications, cloud computing and enterprise applications.