Government and IT- "A Recipe For Rip-Offs": Time For A New Approach - Public Administration Committee Contents

2  The public sector's record

4. The UK has been described as "a world leader in ineffective IT schemes for government".[10] There have been a number of high cost IT initiatives which have run late, under-performed or failed over the last 20 years including: the Child Support Agency's IT system,[11] the IT system that would have underpinned the National ID Card scheme,[12] the Defence Information Infrastructure Programme,[13] the implementation of the Single Payments Scheme by the Rural Payments Agency,[14] and the National Offender Management System (C-Nomis).[15]

5. During the course of our inquiry there was evidence of continuing IT mismanagement: the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) chose to cancel a contract with Fujitsu for desktop computers;[16] one of the NHS partners involved in the electronic patient record system pulled out after the suppliers failed to meet a deadline;[17] and the flagship Universal Credit programme was reported to be behind schedule due to problems meeting the deadline for building the new IT system.[18] The Government's own ICT strategy acknowledges that it is not seen as having a good record in delivering IT projects.[19] There have been a number of successful government IT projects, some of which were identified in the NAO Report "Delivering Successful IT-enabled business change."[20]

6. The Government is not alone in facing problems in its use of IT, as it argued in its ICT Strategy:

    All big organisations - whether in the public or private sector - have examples of failure in delivering big ICT projects and programmes. In the public sector, the failures tend to be very public, while in the private sector, it is easier to keep them in decent obscurity. It is not obvious that the record of government is significantly worse than that of other big organisations.[21]

7. Arguably the government's IT needs are more complex than those of other organisations. Ian Watmore, Chief Operating Officer and head of the Efficiency and Reform Group in the Cabinet Office has been quoted as saying that "IT in government is as difficult as it gets."[22] Jonathan Murray, a partner in an IT firm Innovia Ventures, highlighted the different challenges faced by the public sector:

    It is recognized that public and private sector organizations serve different needs and are driven by different objectives. The majority of private sector organizations are motivated by a common set of financial performance objectives. Governance structures and business models can remain stable in private sector organizations for decades. These factors greatly simplify the process of identifying and implementing common best practice.

    Public sector organizations operate in a reality that challenges many attempts to identify and transfer best practice. There is no homogeneity of objectives across government departments. The nature of the election cycle places severe constraints on the time window available for governance reform and acts to reinforce institutional resistance to change. The traditional - and understandable - constraints and conservatism of public procurement regulations and processes are antithetical to the speed with which organizations must adopt technology to support rapid change. Finally the political process has traditionally reinforced a stovepipe approach to governance where Ministers and senior civil servants are given autonomy and full authority over their departments to the detriment of more distributed and integrated approaches.[23]

Previous attempts at reform

8. The Government is determined to reform the use of IT to deliver better services and reduce costs. It is not the first to have such ambitions. The NAO's landscape review identified 30 "major cross-government policies, reviews and strategies for ICT" from 2000 to 2010.[24] Many of these initiatives covered the same topic outlining similar aspirations and recommendations for change, which emphasises the difficulty of achieving meaningful reform in this area.[25]

9. We asked the Government why previous attempts to reform IT had been unsuccessful. In the Government's view the reasons were that:

    projects tended to be too big, leading to greater risk, complexity and limiting the range of suppliers who could compete;

    departments, agencies and public bodies too rarely reused and adapted systems available off the shelf or that had already been commissioned by another part of government, leading to wasteful duplication;

    systems were too rarely interoperable;

    the infrastructure was insufficiently integrated, leading to inefficiency and separation;

    there was serious over-capacity, especially in data centres;

    procurement timescales were far too long and costly, squeezing out all but the biggest suppliers; and

    there had been too little attention given at senior levels to the implementation of big ICT projects and programmes, either by senior officials or by ministers. Similarly, Senior Responsible Owners (SROs)[26] often move on due to change in roles.[27]

10. When asked why these latest reforms would prove more successful than those of previous administrations, the Cabinet Office responded that they would address these underlying barriers to change by:

    introducing new central controls to ensure greater consistency and integration;

    taking powers to remove excess capacity;

    creating a level playing field for open source software;

    streamlining procurement and specify by outcomes rather than inputs;

    creating a presumption against projects having a lifetime value of more than


    imposing compulsory open standards, starting with interoperability and security;

    creating a comprehensive asset register;

    creating a cross-public sector Applications Store;

    requiring SROs (Senior Responsible Owners) to stay in post until an appropriate break point in project/programme life; and

    encouraging boards to hold ministers and senior officials to account on a regular basis for the progress of projects and programmes with substantial ICT elements.[28]

11. We welcome the Government's attempt to analyse current deficiencies, but it is not clear whether they have identified the fundamental causes of failure or simply listed its symptoms. For example, the failure to re-use and adapt existing systems, the overcapacity in data centres and a lack of interoperability appear symptomatic of more fundamental problems; a lack of effective cross-departmental working and IT governance across Whitehall.

Underlying causes of failure

12. It is these underlying causes of failure which we sought to assess in our inquiry. There was a recurring theme in our evidence: that the failure of "IT projects" was rarely due to the technology itself. Failure occurred because of flaws in the underlying policy, or its implementation. Ian Watmore went further saying that he contested "the concept of an IT project".[29]

    I do not know what that means. There are only projects that you introduce in Government to introduce policy that Ministers have decreed or to improve the operation of the system of Government. Technology happens to be an enabler for that. [...] When we have the so-called IT project disasters, nearly always they translate back [...] to one of [...] three things: policy problems, business change problems or big-bang implementation.[30]

Similarly Socitm[31] argued that it was not the "pure" IT project, such as system upgrades, that tended to fail but those that were "focused on implementing a particular policy initiative or reforming the way a specific part of the public service works."[32]

13. On the basis of the evidence received during our inquiry, we concluded that there are six underlying causes of failure in government IT:

  • Inadequate information, resulting in the Government being unable to manage its IT needs successfully (Chapter 3);
  • An over-reliance on a small number of large suppliers and the virtual exclusion of small and medium sized (SME) IT contractors, which tend to be less risk adverse and more innovative (Chapter 4);
  • A failure to integrate IT into the wider policy and business change programmes (Chapter 5);
  • A tendency to commission large, complex projects which struggle to adapt to changing circumstances (Chapter 6);
  • Over-specifying security requirements (Chapter 7), and
  • The lack of sufficient leadership and skills to manage IT within the Civil Service, and in particular the absence of an "intelligent customer" function in Departments (Chapter 8).

After suggesting solutions to these problems, we go on to outline our own ideas about how IT could be used to transform the way that government delivers its services (Chapter 9).

10   Dunleavy, P. Margetts, H., Bastow, S., and Tinkler, J., Digital Era Governance, Oxford University Press, 2008, p 70 Back

11   Public Accounts Committee, Thirty-Seventh Report of the Session 2006-07, Child Support Agency: Implementation of the Child Support Reforms, HC 812 Back

12   Ev 124 Back

13   National Audit Office, Ministry of Defence: The Defence Information Infrastructure Programme, July 2008, HC 788 Back

14   National Audit Office, Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs: The Delays in Administering the 2005 Single Payment Scheme in England, October 2006, HC 1631 Back

15   National Audit Office, National Offender Management System, March 2009, HC 292 Back

16   "DWP ends Fujitsu thin-client contract",, 15 March 2011 Back

17   "Health IT hit by fresh crisis", Financial Times, 19 April 2011 Back

18   "IT for Universal Credit may miss deadline", Guardian Professional, Monday 20 June 2011 Back

19   Cabinet Office, Government ICT Strategy, para 1 Back

20   National Audit Office, Delivering Successful IT-enabled business change, November 2006, HC 33-I Back

21   Cabinet Office, Government ICT Strategy Back

22   Quoted in Mark Say, 'The Information Man', Government Computing, 19:2, 2005, p. 16  Back

23   Ev w29 Back

24   Delivering Successful IT-enabled business change, Appendix 1 Back

25   Ibid Back

26   The senior official who has overall responsibility for a project or programme Back

27   Ev 118 Back

28   Ev 119 Back

29   Q 491 Back

30   Q 491 Back

31   An association for Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and related professionals in the United Kingdom public and third sectors, and suppliers to these sectors. Back

32   Ev 138 Back

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Prepared 28 July 2011