"Government IT project beset by management problems, delays, and technical complications". This could be the headline for any one of a number of "troubled" public sector projects over the past decade, from the NHS's National Programme for IT (NPfIT), CLG's FireControl, or in the latest headlines, DWP's Universal Credit.
One of the recurrent points that has come out in National Audit Office (NAO) and Public Accounts Committee (PAC) reports into these projects is the lack of project management skills needed to deliver them. In this context project management is a pretty broad term, covering the ability to organise, control and manage a programme of activity to achieve a particular outcome. However, media headlines suggesting the absence of management, or a lack of governance on such projects is, as anyone who has worked on them knows, a distortion of reality.
In fact, the failures that are typically bemoaned in these reports point to the specific challenges that such extraordinary projects generate, and which classic project management techniques do not always effectively handle. The result is that whilst better management is of course important, what is really needed is a change in mindset and risk attitude rather than changes in technical management.
The first change in mindset is to recognise why such public sector projects are critical. These are enormously complex endeavours, and being explicit about the challenges involved without creating a stigma is useful. Such IT programmes typically overstate the size of the prize, and understate the difficulty in getting there, and all of these are justifiable reasons for the NAO and PAC to investigate. However, a report by the NAO estimated that in 2012 at least £480bn of the government's operating revenues and at least £210bn of non-staff expenditure such as pensions and entitlements were reliant on older IT systems.
Such legacy systems are often built for a localised, narrow purpose, however as political requirements change, they get adapted to newer more encompassing functions. The technical complexity of making these systems interact with and operate alongside one another causes the overall public sector IT architecture to evolve in an uncoordinated haphazard fashion with technical "work arounds" and complex code strings. The end result is an increasing dependency on ageing, overloaded, unmanageable systems. Doing nothing is not an option.
We therefore need the kind of large project so often criticised. Not because of the benefits they offer for the specific policy they are implementing, but because they help to establish a more streamlined and future-proof IT infrastructure for the public sector. To some extent these projects are a necessary "spring-clean" and governments that seek to do this should be applauded.
The second change in mindset is to recognise just how difficult large scale public sector IT projects are. In a world with multiple legacy systems, provided by multiple suppliers, and with highly complex ways of working to enable these systems to interact, much of the initial cost is in unpicking what has gone before or in identifying even more complex "workarounds" to shoe-horn out of date systems into meeting current and future requirements. Resolving these issues requires time, technical skill and significant investment