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

5  Integrating IT

65. A common theme emerging from our evidence is that IT must be integrated into the development of all new policy and initiatives. It was suggested previous IT failures had been caused by a lack of linkage with the business of government. As the Open Rights Group put it:

    You don't want a policy on shovels when your actual problem is gardening - you need a policy on gardening. Therefore, the question isn't how to use IT the question is "How do we manage this problem, and does IT fit into this case".[91]

66. A number of witnesses argued that it was wrong to think of large projects which involved IT as "IT projects" but that they should instead be regarded as "IT-enabled business change programmes". Glyn Evans, Vice President of Soctim argued that:

    It sometimes seems that every other year we have some inquiry into why IT projects fail, whereas perhaps a more meaningful question is why do we try and run business change projects as if they were IT projects [...] The danger of focusing, in effect, on the IT bit of change is that you don't do well any of the other elements. In such circumstances it's amazing that any IT projects actually succeed.[92]

ThinkGov, an IT consultancy, echoed this sentiment, "there are very few Information Technology failures, but plenty of examples where a public sector business change project using IT has been mismanaged."[93] Intellect commented that the Government should focus on establishing departments' business needs first and then deciding what technology to use[94] and that currently "technology tends to be considered separately from business change."[95] Westminster Council reinforced this point, arguing that "too often IT is viewed as a dark art or worse still something that will just deliver without needing to engage with the deliverers."[96]

67. Sirius argued that IT is too often an "afterthought" with policy development and legislation both being conducted in "isolation to the technical environment or technological implications."[97] One company, commenting on IT management in HMRC, said that "the IT part of HMRC effectively dictates HMRC strategy because IT seems to sit at the heart of everything. The IT tail wags the business dog."[98]

68. Hewlett Packard highlighted the importance of integrating IT at the start of policy development.

    IT is now on the critical path of almost any significant policy initiative. It is not sensible for policy to be developed without considering the way in which IT might support its delivery [...] In particular, it is important that IT is not treated as an afterthought which comes at the end of the policy development process.[99]

We suggested to the Government that the technology that would deliver any new policy should be considered early on in the policy development process and given the same importance attributed to the legal or financial implications of a policy. Ian Watmore was very receptive to this idea saying that:

    I absolutely think that delivery of the policy, in all its guises, should be thought about right at the beginning when you are making policy, and delivery includes technology, organisational change, people and the other things as well. I absolutely agree.[100]

69. Government should ensure that the IT implications of new initiatives are properly considered near the start of the policy process on a par with the legal and financial considerations. This should simply be an extension of thinking about how the policy will be implemented in practice. We recommend that analysis of these issues be included in all policy submissions to Ministers.


70. Another flaw that seems to haunt government's approach to IT is over-specifying technical solutions to problems. Microsoft argued that there was a tendency towards:

    Long, detailed and very prescriptive definitions of every aspect of the system to be delivered. This is not limited to the functions that the system must deliver, but also specifies many aspects of how the system must do it, often down to the specific technology. Not only does this make the bidding process more complex and expensive, but also eliminates any opportunity for innovative solutions.[101]

71. Similarly a number of SMEs believed that there was a mindset of getting things done rather than getting things right: "Big problems require big solutions" was how one SME described Whitehall's attitude. Little consideration was given to how public services could be better designed and delivered, and the role of modern information systems in helping to make that happen. Procurement appears aimed solely at dictating solutions, "we know what the solution is, come and deliver it", rather than setting out desired outcomes and then letting an open market provide potential solutions.[102]

72. A number of useful suggestions were made as to how combat government's tendency to over-specify. One of these was that the Government should spend much more time thinking about what it wants to achieve before starting the formal procurement process itself. Sureyya Cansoy, Intellect's director of public services, argued:

    there is not enough preparation on procurement before a Government department or agency goes out to procure and publishes its contract notice. They don't spend enough time understanding the art of the possible, they don't spend enough time thinking about the business outcomes that the project or programme is trying to achieve[103]

Once the formal procurement process has begun government is, understandably, unwilling to talk to individual companies for fear of having the eventual contracting decision challenged.

73. One mechanism government uses to talk to the IT industry at an early stage in a systems development is Intellect's "Concept Viability" scheme which provides suppliers with the opportunity to give government departments honest feedback on whether the project or programme is designed well, whether it would work, whether the commercial arrangements are the most appropriate ones, and whether their budgets are realistic before a contract notice is issued.[104] This scheme has received positive reviews from the National Audit Office (NAO)[105] although some SMEs were less positive arguing that they struggled to get access to the scheme.[106]

74. An alternative model, used by the oil and gas industries for providing a conduit between technology innovators and industry, was recommended to us. The Industry Technology Facilitator (ITF)[107] enables the oil and gas industries to tap into supplier-side innovation and deployment. It runs as an independent organisation outside of the normal commercial and supply chain interests and enables an informed dialogue to take place, something that appears to be lacking in government's current approach to IT.[108]

75. We agree with our witnesses who argued that there was no such thing as an IT project - only policy initiatives and business programmes that use technology in their delivery. One of the primary reasons for these project failures is a lack of focus on the outcome and how the IT project fits into the wider benefits the Government wants to achieve. The Government must stop departments specifying IT solutions and ensure they specify what outcomes they wish to achieve, within the broad technical parameters to ensure interoperability. The market should then be able to provide a range of possible IT solutions.

91   Ev 130 Back

92   Ev 139 Back

93   Ev w34 Back

94   Ev 113 Back

95   Ev 114 Back

96   Ev 89 Back

97   Ev w45 Back

98   Note submitted in confidence to the Committee. Back

99   Ev 105 Back

100   Q 557 Back

101   Ev w145 Back

102   SME Seminar Back

103   Q 190 [Ms Cansoy] Back

104   Q 174 [Ms Cansoy] Back

105   National Audit Office, Delivering Successful IT-enabled business change, para 3.24 Back

106   SME seminar. Back

107   See http/  Back

108   Ev w147-148 Back

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Prepared 28 July 2011