Wednesday, March 10, 2010

UK Government's love of IT complexity

@tonyrcollins has been posting quotes on his blog from the BBC Radio4 File on Four programme about IT public sector projects in the UK, including the IT problems hurting farmers.

So where is that podcast? I'm sure I must have already downloaded it ...

The programme opens with a comment by Edward Leigh, the retiring chairman of the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee.
"We the taxpayer are paying enormous sums to people for these IT projects, to run them for us, and to waste money for us. So I think once a general election is over whoever wins I hope will take a scythe through all these precious IT systems."

Here is Dr Phyllis Starkey MP, chair of the parliamentary select committee, talking about a failed system for the fire service.
"There have clearly been massive mistakes about the way in which the project was first formulated and the way in which the contract was originally drawn up with the main contractor and they've led to huge delays and massive additional costs to government and to the various fire authorities."

Aha, I just got to the bit where Tony Collins himself appears on the programme. For those of you that don't know him, Tony is the executive editor at Computer Weekly and has been a public observer and critic of public sector IT in the UK for a long time. Very sound.

I was particularly interested in Edward Leigh's suggestion that ministers are subject to the illusion that it is easy to add functionality.
"They’re very short-termist. They want to create a quick impact …[and] are very naive about IT systems and the cost of IT staff, so they’re taken for a ride by very bright people who earn very large salaries in the private sector running these companies."
“Ministers come they go and they add onto these things like a Christmas tree. You need one simple – piloted – [system] … you stick to it. Rough-justice politicians just keep changing their minds – constantly new ideas – and of course they are just playthings for the private sector."

But will anything change after the election? Tony Collins sounds a note of caution: A few big IT suppliers may have Tories over a barrel. So more of the same then?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Generous to a fault

CSC Chief Executive positive about NPfIT despite "political rhetoric", reports Tony Collins (Computer Weekly, Feb 2010)

CSC boss says "we are going to work something out that satisfies their needs as well as ours". How very generous of him.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Procurement and Risk

The Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has published some (mild) criticism of the Defence Information Infrastructure project, contracted to EDS by the UK Ministry of Defence [Report (pdf) via The Register].

"The Ministry ... says that there's no need to worry about the risk budget being two-thirds gone at this point as it is normal for emergencies to appear early rather than late in a project."

But that of course depends how risk is managed. One possible approach is to try and eliminate or reduce uncertainty early in a project, before expensive commitments are made. However, the PAC has identified some outstanding risks.

  • The longer it takes to complete the implementation of DII, the greater the risk that one or more of the Department’s legacy systems will fail.
  • The Department did not conduct a pilot before commencing full implementation, even though the DII Programme was complex and the timetable ambitious.
The continued presence of this kind of risk in the programme suggests that "emergencies appear early" looks like an optimistic hope rather than a management achievement.

Note: Last summer, the DII received qualified praise from the National Audit Office [The Register, July 2008]. The NAO has itself been subject to criticism for its cosy relationship with large contractors such as EDS, especially under its former comptroller Sir John Bourn [Private Eye, Guardian].

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

So what is the problem?

When we look at a failure such as the CSA it is easy to move straight into solution mode with blame or recommendations or "new" solutions. But let's rest a moment with the reality. A large number of highly paid professionals using the officially mandated management methods didn't even come close to a successful system: it was probably never within reach. Part of the mandated management approach is to manage the risks. Anything that could damage the prospects of the project should be documented and under control. From the perspective of the project there are only two possibilities:
  1. that a known risk was not controlled properly
  2. that a risk was not identified so that it could not be managed

If you like this at a higher level of abstraction we could go for:

  1. Official approaches to risk management did not work
  2. Official approaches to risk management were not used properly

When the Heathrow Express tunnel collapsed, all tunnelling projects using the same New Austrian Tunnelling Method were suspended pending the investigation. When we merely lose half a billion pounds of tax payers money and wreck a few more lives we don't even pause to ask.

I guess this means that the mandated management approaches are a sham:

  1. Either nobody expected them to work in the first place and/or
  2. Best practice is always what we invent today

My impression of all this fiasco is that language and stated purpose is so bent and twisted by the political pressures that piss-ups in breweries are impossible to organise. In the positivist world of IT you cannot take any statement at face value and there is no such thing as reliable information. Risk manage that!

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Louise Ferguson

Blogging in November 2004, Louise Ferguson writes
This has not been a good year for major public sector IT projects.
She lists several of the failures, and identifies two common threads.
  1. An attitude of 'we know best' on the part of senior decision makers, leading to unwarranted assumptions about how people work, erroneous requirements specifications, and finally systems that are not fit for purpose.
  2. A belief that IT, merely through its existence, changes business processes and people's behaviour.

Friday, December 31, 2004

CSA Fiasco 2

I have written a brief analysis of the CSA Fiasco, together with Philip Boxer, which illustrates some of Philip's ideas about complex system design. This is still in draft form, and we are keen to get suggestions - does this make sense? how can we improve the document? how can we use this material to develop commercial opportunities?

Public Sector IT - The CSA Case

Friday, November 19, 2004

CSA Fiasco

At the UK Child Support Agency (CSA), an IT system costing £456m is widely expected to be scrapped, following the resignation of CSA boss Doug Smith. On top of the cost of the IT system itself, the CSA has had to write off over £1bn of debt. In addition, there is incalculable cost to other stakeholders - in particular, the CSA's "customers".

According to some sources, contractor EDS has already conducted its own postmortem, describing its own system as "badly designed, badly delivered, badly tested and badly implemented".

CSA Boss Quits, TheRegister
Government Under Pressure, Guardian Unlimited
Commercial Secrecy
Waste of Public Money