UK Government report highlights IT project management failures

Project management is something that has been talked about a lot here at the Orange Business Live blog in the last few weeks, and an example of why the topic is important has come from the UK, where a government IT scheme has been deemed "a singular example of comprehensively poor project management".

First, a little background. It was decided during 2003 to unite the prison authorities and the probation service to deliver "end to end offender management", under a new body called the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). This work obviously included a comprehensive overhaul of the IT systems used by the department, a project called C-NOMIS, underpinned by the delivery of a single, unified database. The project was described as "ambitious but still technically feasible".

In a scathing report, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said that "NOMS significantly underestimated the technical complexity of the project and the need to standardise ways of working to avoid excessive customisation". There was "poor planning, poor financial monitoring, inadequate supplier management and too little control over changes". In addition, "NOMS cannot say in detail what £161m to October 2007 was spent on" -- an impressive budgetary black hole -- with an estimated £41m "wasted" due to delays and cost overruns.

Among the critical issues encountered was a lack of accountability, with arrangements changed several times over the course of the project. It was noted that "too much rested on the performance of a few key individuals to deliver success", and that "it should not have been possible for the projects to drift for three years without those in charge being aware of it". In addition, the lack of a dedicated financial team led to "poor budgeting and cost control, uncertainty over the cost escalations and inadequate reporting of the financial position". Those responsible for the project had "retired or moved on" before the scale of the problem became apparent.

The PAC has, unsurprisingly, made a number of recommendations to ensure the same problems do not recur, although it pointed out that "it is deeply depressing that after numerous highly-critical PAC reports on IT projects in recent years, the same mistakes have occurred once again". Among its recommendations were that "a plan showing how business change and new IT are to be integrated should be upfront in the full business case for all major IT projects", that "departments should assess and, where appropriate, strengthen their capacity to manage major projects", and that participants should "monitor key projects closely using reporting systems that are fit for purpose, based on actual evidence of performance, together with managers' reports and assessments".

The PAC report is available for download here.

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