Information and Communications Technology in government - Public Accounts Committee Contents

2  Implementing the Strategy

6. ERG described the new powers which it hoped would enable the Strategy to succeed where previous initiatives had failed to improve ICT. Controls laid down in the Spending Review mean that ERG can intervene in departments directly, stepping in to micro-manage projects if necessary. ERG recognised that these powers should be used selectively.[12]

7. Ensuring the buy-in of departments to the direction and objectives of the Strategy is essential. ERG told us how commitment from each department's Chief Information Officer (CIO) was easier to obtain now that CIOs met regularly, and were accountable to the Government CIO for delivery of their actions in the Strategy.[13] CIOs need sufficient standing within their departments to influence progress. ERG told us that only four CIOs sat on their respective departmental Boards at the time of our hearing,[14] but that CIOs had better access than before to key committees and could escalate any concerns to the Government CIO if needed.[15]

8. Key causes of ICT project failure include over-ambitious expectations on the part of the department, and, in turn, over-confident proposals from the ICT suppliers. Projects with long timescales were then out-of-date by the time the ICT was implemented, and incurred increased costs as changes to the project were made.[16] ERG welcomed the list of Common Causes of Project Failure produced jointly by the National Audit Office and the Office of Government Commerce, and said it had been helpful in assessing projects and programmes and managing the risks.[17] ERG told us that it was moving towards shorter, more iterative projects with timeframes of two to three years. One example was the Department for Work and Pensions' Universal Credit project which had a deadline of October 2013.[18] If successful, ERG said this project would be a suitable benchmark for the development and implementation of future ICT systems.[19]

9. Another reason for the failure of ICT projects in the past has been a lack of clarity about the policy.[20] ERG told us that in future a 'starting gate review' would be performed on every major project. The review would be a check against the common causes of failure and would allow ERG to press, if necessary, for greater clarity from policy-makers and Ministers.[21]

10. The Strategy aims to create a fairer and more competitive marketplace, putting an end to the oligopoly of large suppliers and providing greater direct opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).[22] The balance of power in the procurement process has leaned towards large suppliers, which have a vested interest in long timescales.[23] ERG accepted that using an SME as a subcontractor through one of the large ICT suppliers could result in government paying a profit margin to both suppliers. Removing the obstacles that hinder the direct participation of SMEs and the voluntary sector was therefore a key element of the Strategy.[24] However, previous initiatives supporting greater use of SMEs had failed.[25] Departments were now being challenged to find ways in which SMEs could engage and contract with them directly. ERG initiatives included providing websites and meetings where SMEs could pitch their ideas rather than responding to requests for proposals. ERG has also recruited an 'SME Crown commercial representative' who is leading on SME involvement in government.[26]

11. The Government plans to move more public services online and ERG stressed to us the importance of designing services around the needs of the user. ERG would shortly be appointing a 'Director of Digital' to lead on improving and extending government's presence on the Internet.[27] ERG said that it had proved very useful, in the development of Universal Credit, to include citizens - typical users of the service - in the design process.[28] It also referred to the Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency's online system for car tax, which was designed from the point of view of the motorist; joining up information about the individual, the car, the insurance and the MOT test.[29]

12. Approximately nine million people in the United Kingdom have never used the Internet. They are often the hardest to reach, for example the elderly. For the elderly or those from poor backgrounds, the Internet can be very enabling.[30] It is important that they are not disadvantaged by the shift to online services. ERG told us it was encouraging the use of alternative means through which to access the Internet, including online centres, libraries and post offices.[31]

13. The Strategy only makes one reference to cyber-security despite government plans to introduce new ways of working via new technologies, which rely on the Internet. This move to Internet-enabled technology increases cyber-security risks. ERG told us that it needed to balance cyber-security requirements against the risk of making services impractical to use because they were smothered by excessive security.[32]

14. Government has a clear need for cyber-security skills, but the witnesses could not say how many cyber-security professionals were working within government compared with what was actually needed. The Government of the United States of America had already identified that it would need to double its capability to meet a shortfall in skills. The Strategic Defence Review had allocated £650 million to cyber-security, which ERG told us would support the development of a wider capability.[33] And, the Minister for the Cabinet Office had, since May 2011, taken responsibility for cyber-security.[34]

15. Ensuring that the right ICT skills are in place will be critical, and this goes well beyond cyber-security skills. ERG told us that there were high-quality staff within both the centre of government and individual departments, but there were probably not enough of them. ERG had limited understanding of the size and capability of the existing Civil Service ICT workforce. It undertook to address workforce planning, at least at departmental level, in its ICT Capability Strategy, due for publication in the autumn.[35]

16. In the current economic climate it is likely that ICT will continue to be subject to heavy cuts - maybe 30% to 50% - which will inevitably involve job losses.[36] ERG assured us that attempts were being made to ensure that those staff with important skills did not leave on voluntary redundancy schemes. In addition, departments were increasing their in-house skills by replacing contractors and consultants with civil servants. [37]

17. We reminded the witnesses that we have often raised concerns about the role of the Senior Responsible Owner (SRO), who is responsible for ensuring that a project or programme of change meets its objectives and delivers the projected benefits.[38] In 2006 half of SROs were in their first role and half spent less than 20% of their time on their SRO duties.[39] There had been cases where the role had been treated more like that of a non-executive chairman performed on a part-time basis.[40] Many had no relevant experience and it was common for an SRO to change jobs every 15 to 18 months, leaving new SROs able to blame their predecessors for failures.[41] ERG told us that with shorter projects the risk of the SRO departing before implementation was reduced. Departments would be required to do risk assessments and, if for any reason the SRO had to change, to put in place arrangements to ensure a smooth hand over of responsibility.[42]

18. In the past, the Cabinet Office has not had the clout or ability to establish the level of management or coordination across government that was needed to deliver a successful ICT strategy.[43] Future success will partly depend on the work of the new Major Projects Authority, but ERG could not provide any detail on the nature or the number of the projects to be in its purview. Potentially the Major Projects Authority could manage a portfolio of more than 50 major projects, of which ERG estimated that around two-thirds could have a major ICT component. ERG described the Major Projects Authority as a small, powerful team of approximately 40 people, which was already up to full strength.[44] The team would appoint experts to review projects and would have the right to intervene directly where significant concerns arose. It would also have access to Ministers if necessary to get issues resolved.[45]

12   Qq 3 and 7 Back

13   Qq 4-7 Back

14   Department for Work and Pensions, HM Revenue and Customs, Office for National Statistics and the Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency Back

15   Qq 48-51 and supplementary note to Qq 49-50  Back

16   Qq 1, 15, 34, 78 Back

17   Q2; Back

18   Qq 15 and 36- 41 Back

19   Q 41 Back

20   Qq 15, 18 Back

21   Qq 15,17-18 Back

22   Cabinet Office, Government ICT Strategy, March 2011 Back

23   Qq 34, 78, 97 Back

24   Qq 34, 45-46 and 85 Back

25   Q 35 Back

26   Q 84 Back

27   Qq 12, 76  Back

28   Qq 76, 36 and 101 Back

29   Q 1 Back

30   Qq 1, 73 Back

31   Qq 1,73 Back

32   Q 61  Back

33   Qq 64-69 Back

34   Q 61 Back

35   Qq 7, 97-98 and supplementary note to Q 99  Back

36   Q 7-8, 53-57 Back

37   Qq 53-57 and supplementary note to Q57 Back

38 Back

39   Q20; Committee of Public Accounts, Delivering successful IT-enabled business change, Twenty-seventh Report of Session 2006-07, HC 113 Back

40   Q 25 Back

41   Qq 25,52 and 60 Back

42   Q 60 Back

43   Q 3 Back

44   Q32-33 Back

45   Qq 23, 30 and 32-33 Back

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Prepared 5 July 2011