Thursday, 5 September 2013

Universal Credit: The Public Sector IT Merry-Go-Round

This morning we have been regaled with stories about the predictable fiasco of the government's Universal Credit system being described as being dogged by weak management, ineffective control and poor governance" by the National Audit Office.

The whole thing is, of course, drearily predictable: we have got used to disaster after disaster with government IT projects. But once again we must ask - why do government IT projects seem so prone to disaster?

There are a number of reasons. Firstly, massive IT projects, public or private, almost always take much longer to implement than when first estimated. However, there is an added pressure in the public sector to shoe-horn project  outcomes into  the demands of the electoral cycle and, quite correctly, they are subjected to a great deal more public scrutiny.

But the major reason for the litany of public IT disasters is a culture of the project merry-go-round.

Imagine you are a senior manager at a corporation, and you convince the governing board to finance a huge project that will greatly increase your power and prestige within the organisation. Naturally, you want this situation to continue as long as possible - ideally forever.

However, in the private sector, failure to complete the project and positively effect the bottom line will, sooner or later, lead to you getting fired. Not so in the public sector, where failure is rarely punished as quickly or severely. The bizarre result is that there is a personal disincentive to actually deliver the project. Instead, from a personal point of view it is best for managers to keep the band-wagon rolling for as long as possible. As a result, IT projects run into trouble, and rather than being pruned our abandoned, are simply restarted again and again.

As an IT consultant who has worked for several public sector organisations, I have seen projects restarted from scratch not once, not twice but astonishingly more than half and dozen times, with just a jazzy new name to rebrand the project and make it look  like something entirely new. Estimated completion times have overrun by almost orders of magnitude in the process. Never have the managers concerned been sacked. Of course it would be going too far to suggest that managers set out with such cynical intentions, but just like the rest of us they will tend to make decisions that secure their own positions and justify them on other grounds.

For that reason, do not believe those siren voices who say that Universal Credit should be 'reviewed' or 're-evaluated'. You can bet your bottom dollar that under that umbrella a new turn on the merry go round will begin, the project will be rebooted, and the total cost and implementation time will rise again. Meanwhile, nothing will be delivered, but many management empires will be built, the civil service employees at the Department of Social Security will be able to justify their continued existence, and no doubt many consultants will be very well re-numerated.

Either finish it, or kill it stone dead.

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