Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Management By Void

Teach yourself Government Management

The Public Accounts Committee has just published its report on Delivering successful IT–enabled business change. Don't let its boring title mislead you: this is a journey into the very heart of government.

The Committee has been finding out why government IT projects are almost always expensive fiascos. Of course, it's done that many times before, but nothing ever changes.

The report says that central government currently spends £12-14 bn pa on "some 120 mission critical or high risk IT-enabled programmes and projects". And as we know from the NHS Supercomputer, the ID cards scheme, etc etc, they place an awful lot of trust in successful completion.

So you'd figure that they'd make the management of those projects a top priority, wouldn't you.

But incredibly, that's not the case.

As the report says, government routinely fails to follow the three golden rules of successful IT management:
  • Ensuring senior level engagement- "board level engagment with major programmes and projects has been found wanting, resulting in a failure to identify and act on immiment risks to delivery"

  • Acting as an intelligent client- "Departments have not always shown themselves to be intelligent clients, with poorly defined requirements and a lack of capacity to engage effectively with suppliers"

  • Realising the benefits- "only a minority of programmes and projects have carried out final Gateway Reviews to determine if they have delivered the benefits they set out to achieve"
This is not rocket science; in fact, it's not even pre-school playdough modelling. And if you've ever had the misfortune to be involved in any IT project, you will know the rules comprise page one of Teach Yourself IT.
So why on earth doesn't government do it?

Let's just consider "senior level engagement".

Regular BOM readers will recall Defra's farm payments fiasco, and how the benighted CEO of the Rural Payments Agency only ever met the Secretary of State twice, despite the fact that he was struggling to deliver a highly ambitious and problematical IT-dependent subsidy programme, which she personally had ordered (see this blog).

Now OK, the Secretary of State in that case was the abysmal Margaret Beckett, but as the PAC report makes clear, that kind of senior managerial detachment is by no means an exception:

"A fifth (21%) of Senior Responsible Owners of mission critical and high risk IT enabled programmes had not met with the nominated Minister and a further 28% met the Minister less than once a quarter."

The big flash decisions may all get made at the top, but all too often the politicos don't want to know about the tedious and difficult stuff involved in actual implementation. That's down to the the civil servants.

Moreover, even if there are review meetings, that kind of detachment makes it highly unlikely that civil servant will have the nerve to tell ministers that a struggling IT project should be pulled.
It is the exact opposite of Tesco Government (eg see this blog). As we know, Tesco, and other successful private sector businesses, only work so well because the top people are hands on. It is inconceivable that a major "mission critical" IT project would get ordered at the top, and then left entirely in the hands of IT gremlins below decks. Good managers know that the real world, with all its risks and uncertainties, is just not that simple.
The reality is- as we've blogged many times- politicos are not managers. Unlike the career structures in private businesses, politics simply doesn't produce managers. What's more they don't want to be managers. They want to bestride the world, to order it, to leave their mark on history. They don't want to waste their time on messy stuff like "IT-enabled business change".
This is the dark gaping void at the heart of government managerialism. All politicos like to talk about managing things better than the last lot. But they haven't a clue how to do it. And they have absolutely no interest in learning.
PS The Register has a useful piece on the NAO's original report on this.

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