Consultants at work in the public sector – Questions & answers – Will

Numerous project failures in the Home Office, Immigration, the Prison Service, and the Passport Agency, not to mention tax self-assessment have all contributed to the Government’s poor record in bringing high-profile and critical IT projects to successful conclusions. Only in the past few months it has added to its long history of IT disasters when a £300m project at the MoD failed to bear fruit. The 12-year contract outsourced to EDS involved integrating systems from the army, navy and air force, but the system proved too complex, forcing EDS back to the drawing board.

It is perhaps with this in mind that Andrew Smith, chief secretary to the Treasury, has launched a joint government and industry group aimed at improving the management of IT projects. This new body, the Senior IT Forum sponsored by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), has high ambitions, planning to put an end to the cost and time overruns which are now commonplace in the public sector.

In an industry where outsourcing has become a popular trend, new criticism of the procurement process has increased the pressure on the Government. At a conference held at the Institute of Directors, the Association of Technology Staffing Companies (ATSCo) warned that more projects may go over budget in the next year as the staffing for large IT projects is put in the hands of procurement departments.

The Government is depending on the work of the OGC, a department set up last year to improve the management of external projects in the public sector, “establishing an integrated procurement policy and strategy across government”. The existence of such a body is at the very least an admission that practices need to be changed, though just how radical such changes will be is deeply questionable, as the following interview with the OGC reveals.

Q: For a government so enthusiastic about e-business it would seem more important than ever that its own internal software development projects are successful. Yet we continue to see many public sector IT projects running over time, over budget and some even ending in contractual stalemate. What is going wrong in the management of these projects? Is it a problem that is fundamental to the very nature of outsourcing?

OGC: “It is inevitable that IT projects as large, complex or novel as those entered into by government will at times encounter difficulties. The Office of Government Commerce has been established to act as a catalyst to ensure that future government procurement projects, including IT projects, are delivered to budget and on time through the implementation of best practice and value for money procurement practices.”

Why are projects outsourced in the first place? Why not build up IT expertise in-house?

“Through the OGC’s Gateway Review Process each large, complex or novel procurement project undertaken by government is subject to the highest possible scrutiny by specially recruited independent teams of industry experts. Expertise is therefore targeted as required to each individual project, relevant to its needs, and is a better use of taxpayers’ money than employing full-time teams who have skills that would not be utilised on a daily basis.”

On what basis is an organisation chosen to take charge of a government IT project? It seems that most public sector IT projects are outsourced to just two or three companies. Do you think this is a dangerous policy?

“To say only two or three companies receive most public sector IT contracts would be an exaggeration-government must take into account the strategic capabilities of each supplier to be able to deliver the project on time and to budget. Because of the size and complexity of many government IT projects, the number of suppliers able to undertake such projects is often small and as such, a particular supplier may be successful in securing several contracts.”

We recently saw the launch of a joint government and industry group (the Senior IT Forum) aimed at delivering better IT projects and creating a government market place more accessible for suppliers. Is this an acknowledgement that IT procurement in the public sector is in need of more intelligent management?

“IT procurement within the public sector is already intelligently managed. However, as was mentioned at the CSSA Conference recently, government’s track record, particularly on the delivery of large and complex IT projects, has not always been as good as it could be-the launch of the Joint Government Senior Forum IT Programme of work shows that government continues its drive for greater successful delivery.”

How do you think the procurement process can be improved?

“The Office of Government Commerce was set up in August 2000 to act as the catalyst for best practice and value for money within government procurement. It has already made huge strides and is continually striving to improve the way government projects are both let and managed.”

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