Friday, June 08, 2007

Stuck in the Past

NuLab ministers inspect their
latest leading edge purchase
As highlighted in an earlier post [link] the usual 'the last lot were even worse/just as bad' was rolled out a lot by the NuLab front bench in yesterday's opposition day debate on the success, or otherwise, of the NHS's £20-odd billion new IT systems. It's a long time now since the last Conservative administration and, even though I was working in the non-public sector side of the same IT industry at the time, the only failures that really stick in my mind were not on the same scale and were not all even central government projects.

That said, I am, to a certain extent, prepared to accept the proposition.

I suspect that some of the systems were actually only on the drawing board stage when John Major left office and required the blend of naïvety and profligacy of a Labour administration to mature them, like the Dome, into a fully fledged disaster. This, however, does not absolve former governments from their full and fair share of the blame.

It's also quite easy to accept that as the potential of technology grows, that certain risks are inevitable. Some of these potential dangers have become reality as an extremely authoritarian government's addiction to tracking its citizens in the same way the EU tracks cattle gives rise to a cavalier attitude to personal freedoms in the use of DNA sampling and CCTV cameras, the intrusive database of all children in the land, the NHS system itself and the granddaddy of them all, the National Identity Register as well as its bastard child, the National ID card. The progress of technology is though also slightly exculpatory of the performance current government on less controversial projects, as it is inevitable that with projects like this the potential for delays and expense rise almost exponentially with their scale and scope. So yes then, the fact that the headline figures for losses and delays are much worse under the current government does not mean that the last one was any better.

So, in one sense, of it the schoolyard taunts of 'you were even worse', as unedifying as they are, have some truth to them, maybe even some underlying self-knowledge when you expand it to it's full form 'We are shit, you are even worse'. It's still a very superficial truth. They ignore the transformations that have taken place with the passage of time.

In the eighties, and early nineties major private sector IT projects also tended to go over budget and under deliver functionality long after projected delivery dates. Even then the degree of failure was lower than in the case of public sector schemes, but only just.

That was then though. Today private sector procurement and management of major IT projects has improved immeasurably. It's still far from perfect, but in the end a fair balance has been struck between the customer and the supplier in the vast majority of cases. There is still the odd white elephant now and again but these are heavily outweighed by the successes even when you look down at the scale of individual companies. Most contracts have frightening sounding penalty clauses but they rarely if ever have to be enforced on any significant scale. Good IT vendors, be it of hardware, software or services strive hard in a competitive market to give the customer what they want, and most customers recognise that this will at times come with a fairly serious price tag.

The increased scale and sophistication of the solutions has been balanced by better management techniques and technologies that actually reduce the complexity without limiting the potential of the technology. Ten years ago I could, and in some cases did, bill a client something in the order of a high five-figure sum for something that was a limited version of a blog. Now they go to one of a dozen providers, click a few buttons and get something better for free. Good companies working in the private sector do not fear this. Reinventing the technology that drives the world of blogs would be donkey work; some now go and advise, on even higher rates, on how such technology can be harnessed for business benefit, others move on to newer, more cutting edge technologies.

Tim Nice-but-Dim
A civil servant looks delighted at the
consultant's news that the £2 billion overrun
is perfectly normal for a project like his
It's when you look for the same changes happening the public sector projects that the "at least we're better than you were" claim starts to look very thin. While the government has moved very rapidly with the times in terms of the scale, and the often objectionable scope of their projects, the improvements on the delivery side are conspicuous by their absence. There are many dynamics which mean that the government will never exactly be on the leading edge of progress in this domain, but the absence of any real progress in catching up with what the private sector can do these days is pretty appalling.

There's no blame to be attached to ministers for not having top flight project management skills. It's a difficult art requiring a whole set of attributes that are often in conflict with those required for high political office, from plain speaking to basic honesty. What they must carry the can for though is failing to see that an unholy alliance of strictly non-Rolls Royce minds in high positions within the civil service, and the large dinosaurs of the IT industry are failing to deliver anything close to value for money. The last Conservative government did belatedly realise this and effectively blacklisted a few high profile suppliers from tendering for new public sector contracts. Come 1997 and with sizable donations to the NuLab fighting fund banked, scandalously these firms found themselves back in favour and are today racking up the over priced billable hours once again.

It's no surprise that most vendors and consultancies in the last ten years have spawned specialist public sector divisions. The real world is a harder place to rake in obscene profits and what they need is a soft touch. In the pampered British civil service and their spin obsessed NuLab political masters they have one. I've seen the celebrations when a government deal is closed; as soon as the ink is dry on the contract they know that they have landed a project that cannot be allowed to fail and that the only challenge will be to see just how much taxpayer's cash can be squeezed out of it.

So no, the previous government were not worse than the current one. They were equally useless in this area, but at least they knew they were and were starting to address it. Progress stopped almost the moment NuLab came to power.

There was a report a few days ago, I think on the BBC web site, which on the IT industry. I couldn't find the article again, thanks to the BBC's appalling search functionality, but the gist of if was that 70% of managers of large IT projects do not fear for their jobs when major cost or timescale overruns occur. The figure did not surprise me in the slightest when you take into account how much work now is for public sector clients.

The one thing I'm certain of is that there will be precious few managers involved in major public sector projects who are among the 30% who actually do fear for the consequences of their actions. I'm even more sure that the proportion of senior civil servants who have worried for a second about their job prospects after poor performance is much much lower.

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