Last Friday’s Computer Weekly included an article by Tony Collins entitled ‘Twenty five years of government IT project failure’. It’s the same old same old – this time it’s the National Offender Management Information System, aka C-Nomis – half-a-billion pounds-worth of cock-up, on which (among much else) ‘nobody was sure how £161m allocated to the C-Nomis project had been spent’.
I’ve seen enough of large-scale IT programmes in the private sector to ask a few questions, however – if not in defence of public-sector IT projects then at least to suggest that the public sector is hardly unique in its talent for dire failure.
- Who actually failed here? Who were the main delivery organisations for this and other notorious public IT failures? Were they not mainly private sector suppliers?
- Where are all the private sector successes against which the public sector is implicitly being compared? I have worked on many large private sector programmes and I cannot remember one that was not massively over budget, late and signally failed to deliver what was promised? There is for example currently a very large private health company that is currently struggling to complete an IT programme that is 400% over budget, several years late and has been descoped by 70%.
- Are we really comparing like with like? C-Nomis is spending hundreds of millions of pounds, whereas (in my experience) the private sector thinks it’s got a big job on its hands when it hits £100m. Public sector programmes are the size of minor wars – the private sector would flounder just to organise the tea breaks.
- As for the underlying faults, regular talk of undefined requirements, politicking, interminable scope and mission creep, inadequate contract and supplier management, lack of accountability, ludicrous optimism, failures of core management practices and procedures – these only go to show how much the private and public sectors have in common.
The public sector indisputably has a lot to learn about large IT programmes, but I doubt that it has much to learn from the private sector.