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UK IT projects must pull up socks, says hefty maven

Public sector is 'swirling mass of unprioritised initiatives'

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The UK coalition government will have to ensure fewer failed public sector IT projects in the future if it wants to avoid a public backlash, according to the former boss of the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) Sir Peter Gershon.

Speaking at the Association for Project Management conference in London last Thursday he said: "There is going to be less money for projects, but we will see a reduced tolerance for waste from the public.

"Failed projects will have an implication on how the public views the government."

Gershon, who published the famous Efficiency Review in 2004, said the media was partly to blame for the bad image of public IT projects: "Research shows that the level of failure is as high in the private sector.

"That is my experience too, but the problem is that public projects are often on a bigger scale, have greater accountability, and impact more on people's lives. This means the media often has a field day."

He also cited many institutional causes of failure.

"In my experience the public sector is a swirling mass of unprioritised initiatives, and even if on one day you get a clear agreement about priorities there would be no guarantee that it would stand the test of time."

He suggested that public servants are taught not to make changes even if they feel they are needed: "It's the culture. It's almost in the DNA of the public sector that you make the decisions correctly and follow due process rather than make the right decision."

He cited possible political influence as another factor behind what he called "the complexity" of public sector projects: "A project can last way beyond the minister in charge of it. For example, the NHS IT Programme has had five different ministers in charge. Each minister has somewhat different ideas about where a project should be going.

"Lack of clear responsibility for a project that spans departments can also be an issue."

He expressed concern over possible skills shortages on future projects.

"Clearly there will be less money for capital expenditure, but what is less clear is what will be the consequence? Departments will have less people after the cuts, and they certainly won't have the amounts of money they had in the past to recruit vast armies of consultants to compensate for skills shortages."

He concluded with a call to arms: "This is an opportunity. We have a professional obligation to the public. We must insist on better practice and better tools, and if we see models of failure they should be flagged up if it's early enough to do so. We should insist on strong governance. There is an opportunity for the profession to become synonymous with the maximum likeliness of project success."

In questions an APM member asked Gershon why there is a focus on learning from failure, asking "why can't we start learning more from success?" Gershon disagreed: "Actually I quite like learning from failure. I think we learn a lot that way."

APM president Dr Martin Barnes believed the speech went down well: "It was a very good speech highlighting the key issues for our membership."

When asked for his views on the recent efficiency review by Sir Philip Green, Gershon said: "I don't want to comment on that I don't think it's relevant. That was about procurement not project management."

Green's report claims that the Government is losing billions every year by failing to negotiate the best deals.

The question of how projects will be managed in the future was also addressed at the conference.

David Pitchford, executive director of Major Projects, Efficiency and Reform Group, (ERG) Cabinet Office said: "We will provide frank and fearless advice to departments.

"In my view the UK has suffered from too much innovation with projects that had too great a risk of failure. The ERG will sit at the centre in a partnership with departments. We need to break down silos and we won't allow departments to go ahead without proper planning, testing and approval."

Pitchford was asked by The Register what progress was being made in the debate about using open source software in the public sector to save money. He replied: "I can't give you an answer this point but I can say we are looking at where and when is the best way to address that."

The ERG was granted control of the OGC and Buying Solutions in June this year.

Sir Peter Gershon was the first chief executive of the OGC and began a major review of public sector efficiency in 2003 culminating, in the Gershon Efficiency Review in July 2004. He is currently the chairman of Tate and Lyle and was knighted for his work on public procurement. He is a member of the Efficiency Board set up by the ERG. ®

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