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Should public sector IT professionals hang their heads in shame?

This week the Independent Newspaper decided to reopen old wounds from public sector IT failures of the past. The paper, with the bit between its teeth, decided to mount an investigation into the biggest IT ‘bungles’ presided over by a labour government. The current bill stands at a staggering £26bn above initial estimated costs.

Though most of these embarrassing projects have already hit the headlines before, the investigation brings some important issues back into popular consciousness. The first is that many of these projects are still ongoing, continuing in their haphazard fashions to eat scarce public funds as they snail towards completion. Those working on these projects are going to need to do some serious thinking at the election draws near, working to understand how these projects are to be finally completed at a reasonable cost. The Tories have already committed to ‘end the era of large government IT projects’, and whoever comes to power, such failures will not be allowed to continue interminably.

Secondly, at the cusp of a boom in public sector outsourcing, those at the coalface need to fully understand what went wrong so it doesn’t happen again. And that’s the key. Going forward, those in charge will be loathe to enter into new agreements or start large new projects without meticulous planning and a complete understanding of how the project will be carried out. Private sector partners charged with delivering these projects can also expect to take on more risk in new arrangements - models like gainsharing and increasingly stringent metrics will become more apparent. With the government’s huge spending deficit, increasingly there will simply be no leeway for failure.

The NOA has recently launched its Public Sector Transformation Steering Committee to do its bit in addressing the sector’s increasing challenges. We’ll be pushing out more and more best practice advice from our regular events as time goes on. However, since the committee’s inception some important IT transformation success factors have already been identified:

• Have a clear vision of goals – do not outsource for the hell of it; understand where you want to be and why outsourcing can help
• Be realistic about what can be achieved – outsourcing won’t solve everything in one fell swoop. Savings from outsourcing can take time to feed through so look first at maintaining and improving service
• Make sure you understand the benefits and communicate them. Small steps and small wins are better than aiming for Shangri La an eternity away.
• Don’t seek to outsource a problem – problems cannot be outsourced easily, you will pay for that. The outsourcer can work with the outsourcee and advisors to solve the problem, THEN work out how to outsource it
• Communicate early with outsourcing bodies; advisors and prospective partners – advice and best practice is vital
• Seek to create a partnership – negotiation is not a competition but a co-design process; there must be incentives for both sides to participate

From our work with the public sector it is becoming clearer what ‘best practice’ and ‘transformation’ should looks like, we are still going through a process of determination of course, but we hope our committee can play a vital part in this formulating what this looks like and avoiding a return to the failures of the past. And no hanging of heads!

However, the fact is that best practice will always be evolving as the industry learns its lessons and matures along the way. This is not a reason to shy away from outsourcing though. The pressure is only going to increase and outsourcing will have a big part to play in the public sector’s future. The choice for those on the front line is: do I get involved now, learn how to make the changes needed and pursue success? Or, do I wait to be pushed into the inevitable confusion that inaction entails? Your choice…

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Tags: outsourcing, public, sector, sourcing

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Comment by Nari Kannan on January 26, 2010 at 3:45am
The unfortunate truth about successful IT or ITES efforts is that a large percentage of projects get it right by only iteration! You don't get everything right in the first place, no matter how much due diligence you put in or how many thousands of pages you make the initial requirements and design documents you do. Agile methods actually save money in the long run with iterations that fine tune expectations with where the projects are going. Unfortunately, public projects, while spening public money is the least tolerant of ambiguity in the beginning and so overspecify. If the project is with a private company, management can be tolerant of failures here and there, could course-correct and arrive at the final destination with some level of success. It is not only the UK - The US has lots and lots of public sector project failures - many of them costing hundreds of millions of dollars! This is where we can all learn from Japanese Manufacturing. They don;t expect the assembly line to work perfectly from day 1. They start slow, identify root causes, fix them, do continuous improvement and in about two years time, beat any body else's productivity metrics! Iteration works and seems to be the only one that converges to the ideal solution.

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