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The reason for such failures in the private sector should be obvious to anyone. Competition forces companies to cut corners, budgets and time, so that many projects fail. In the public sector the same happens because things are run to a political timetable.

So Gateway Reviews - the OGC's panacea for shoddy IT - tend to get shoved in a drawer and the series of reviews tail off before they have done their job. There's so much to do and so little time.

The efforts begun in 2004 by Ian Watmore (now the head of government "transformation") to improve professionalism and street sense among government IT bods will help see that these and earlier recommendations are better followed eventually. But there is something very peculiar about government IT that makes it a little harder to get right than anything ever attempted in the public sector.

That idiosyncrasy may explain why the thing that by Standish's measure is the number one reason for IT project success, is by the NAO's reckoning worth burying in the body of the report: that is, user acceptance. It's basic human psychology that if you try and turn someone's world upside down without their agreement or "buy-in", they'll kick up a stink.

So any private firm worth its salt will include intended users of a computer system in its design from the outset, because it usually involves radical change. Most computer systems, by the extension of their application, have users who exist outside the firm - those people who are the intended recipients of the benefits of computerisation. It's harder to get their involvement in the design and development of an IT system, but it's easy to tell if they like the change: if they don't like it, they can take their business elsewhere.

The trouble with many government systems, however, is that the users don't have much choice in what's foisted on them beyond a vote every four years for a hotch-potch of manifesto commitments that have to be lumped like a bargain bag bought lock stock at a car boot sale just for the sake of that one shiny bauble nestled on the top of all the tat.

A shining exception to this rule is the DWP BACS system, which the NAO said was well liked by benefits claimants, despite strong initial resistance to the idea. The abysmal failure of the Child Support Agency is a prime proof. The Identity Card system will be very interesting for the same reason. It is being foisted on its "users". (Perhaps they'll learn to love the convenience it brings).

This unfortunate reality makes a nonsense of this government's talk of citizens being customers, no matter how much choice it creates by getting the private sector to deliver public services. ®

* £1.5bn of 14bn being spent on UK government IT projects this year

** Standish Group's Top 10 Reasons for Success:

  1. User involvement
  2. Executive management support
  3. Clear business objectives
  4. Optimising scope
  5. Agile process
  6. Project manager expertise
  7. Financial management
  8. Skilled resources
  9. Formal methodology
  10. Standard tools and infrastructure

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