Public Sector IT Projects

There is much coverage at the moment of the coalition government ending the taxpayer-funded ID card programme, and cancelling or scaling back on a range of other public sector IT projects and programmes that are deemed to be wasteful, unnecessary, underperforming or simply unsupportable in this age of austerity.

Many of you no doubt are (or have been) involved in similar public sector IT projects, and it would be interesting to know how this 'cutting of waste' is affecting you. As an industry, IT projects and their project managers have always been affected by perceptions of what we do and how badly we seem to do it, but it is usually the public sector that has the most scrutiny - and with good reason. But since some private sector organisations have been taken into public ownership of sorts, such as the banks, it does raise questions about how much we can and should know about the investment and progress of new technology developments in some public-private concerns, and not just regarding governance and how this affects share prices. The following article is a useful starter for 10 on the thoughts of CIOs regarding private vs. public sector failures. However, it is likely to be the project managers that have the best insights into what the challenges and issues are. We don't hear so much about the successes, true, but they are clearly out there. And what exactly is happening in the third sector?

Comments (8)

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  • 1
    Anthony Hainsworth wrote on 2nd Jul 2010

    I've worked in both the public and private sectors. Admittedly, the public sector has a rough time trying to achieve results on their projects with sometimes very broad specifications that have a 'political' element about them and cost constraints from the public purse. They then often get the blame when things go wrong, despite problems often stemming from faulty or incomplete requirements being defined by the politicians in the first place. Compliance and audit processes appear to be much stricter in the public sector which often adds another layer of overheads to the total project costs.

    However, there’s a common misconception that all the private sector is good whereas the public sector is regarded as bad. The publicity around public sector projects that go wrong is something that journalists and people like the taxpayers’ alliance love to get their teeth into, but these same folk rarely pay heed to projects that go right. However, Elizabeth Sparrow wrote a forward to the publication: “Success: Public Sector Projects Can Work” see which certainly helps redress this.

    My experience of some private sector businesses, particularly SMEs is that they are far more inclined to develop ‘on the hoof’. Whilst this can often stimulate innovative solutions, when it comes to delivering the product to market, speed often is achieved at the expense of testing and quality assurance.

    In the realms of public/private sector ‘partnerships’, workers from the private sector engaged on public projects quite often have divided loyalties between what their employer is requiring them to do within contract terms, i.e. profit driven motives rather than going the extra mile that their counterparts in the public sector might with motivation largely of civic pride and duty to the wider public.

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  • 2
    Philip Goatly wrote on 7th Jul 2010

    I have also worked in both Private & Public sector, but I don't believe that it is as clear cut as Anthony Hainsworth suggests i.e Private tending to do things 'on the hoof' and Public more by detailed design.

    My experience, in both spheres of activity, suggests it is usually more down to how the IT function is organised.

    Within some, so called IT functions, in Public departments, there is little IT expertise and the whole IT project is 'farmed out' to large consultancies. If anything goes wrong it can then be blamed on the consultancy. These types of departments, in my opinion, tend not to get value for money, often because they are not able to question decisions made by the consultancy, through lack of expertise. It is these departments who in my opinion have the largest number of IT failures.

    Other public departments have a reasonable size IT department, who run most of the IT, and buy in any expertise needed when large developments are taking place. They often employ 'singleton' contractors who are completely under the control of the IT department. This way of operating, I believe, is less likely to end in failure and is generally less expensive to the taxpayer.

    I have no particular axe to grind as I am officially retired.

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  • 3
    david almond wrote on 9th Jul 2010

    I echo the views of the others. When large complex sets of requirements are developed by large commercial consultancies complex issues aren't challenged from enough of the different arms of the project (developers, testers, BA's) because they sit in different outsourced groups. AS IT changes become complex the expertise is needed to keep it on track and this is usually the first area for the costcutters. The IT industry wants two contradictory things. Cheap off the shelf IT dev and test and complex integrated apps. This needs to change to make a difference

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  • 4
    Tim Hunter wrote on 9th Jul 2010

    The private sector is not perfect, but waste and utterly useless projects aren't tolerated for very long. In the public sector, however, the whole project becomes a self-serving way of life for so many people that they start to justify the unjustifiable. The objective within public sector projects often seems to be to create an unstoppable juggernaut that employs so many people, the government becomes scared to axe the project because so many jobs will be lost. They are told: ‘honestly, if you keep it going just another year it will improve’. And then another year. And then another year.

    Useless public sector projects can easily continue, because, firstly, their project’s political masters are frankly just amateurs (who’ve been in the job 5 minutes) who can easily have the wool pulled over their eyes. Also, politicians do not want to lose face and stand up in Parliament and admit they've been wrong.

    It’s not for us to expect to be employed on wasteful government projects. If we can’t find genuinely commercial projects to work here on then we’ll have to seek employment in another country. Or do something else.

    By the way, what's happening with the NHS connecting for health project, by the way, surely that's going to be axed?

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  • 5
    Jim Davies wrote on 9th Jul 2010

    To a fair extent, it's a matter of scale. It's well-known that big IT projects are much more difficult than small ones, and (unsurprisingly) large public sector projects are very, very big. So they go wrong. And you don't hear about the little ones that go right, because they're little.

    Connecting for Health was almost doomed from the start by this. The NHS is the largest employer in Europe, so CiH is by definition colossal.

    Also, blame the politicians.

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  • 6
    Ian Wells wrote on 9th Jul 2010

    I would also like to concur with Philip Goatly - I have worked in NHS computing for over 30 years, and have often observed that some of the most successful health IT projects have been built in-house using properly qualified staff, who understand both the clinical and computing issues, and purchasing additional expertise only when required. Sadly, however, this approach is too often dismissed as 'amateur' when it can actually be every bit as professional (or in some cases more so) than bought-in solutions. Maybe the new requirements for CE marking of medical software will sort out the sheep from the goats!

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  • 7
    Graham Devine wrote on 9th Jul 2010

    The public vs. private debate is always worth continuing as it helps us to learn about what makes good project/programme/change management.

    I really would prefer not to believe that there are behaivours which are only 'typical' of those working in a private domain vs those working in a public one. But, as a trainer, consultant and facilitator around P3RM, the evidence of my own experience is that is the case.

    I see several issues here:
    1. In all change initiatives a common failure is the lack of clear undersanding of 'value' from the investment. Unfortunately I still see project/programme roles focussing on value as 'the thing delivered' - disregarding the quality expected of the the 'thing', missing items of 'scope' and not connecting with 'how do we make the thing deliver the outcomes/benefits' expected. It's another way of saying that we still see many problems due to fixing on a project's deliverables as the priority rather than whether they will deliver the benefits. This problem occurs in both public and private - it just seems to be more often 'visible' in the puiblic one.

    2. Organisation - the private sector tends to do well with 'leaner' project/programme management teams, less layers of hierarchy, and is comofrtable with real accountability resting with one individual. This is not the case in the public sector. Multi-layers of governance, myriad stakesholders for example: some providing funding or 'sponsoirship' from a distance, and others with legal rights to consutlation, tend to make the project/rpogrammes' life more difficult - certainly less efficient

    3. Culture - the expectations of 'workers' in either sector, on thw whole, are very different. My experience of delegates in training courses and those where I am offering consulting services is a good reflection of this (as a generalisation of course). Public sector typical behaviours: start a course late, finish early, and still want to get away earlier than the earliest time the course can manage!; Consistnely miss deadlines - if a meeting is scheduled individuals don't prepare, and turn up late (never early); dont' prepare for courses/don't like doing homework; will appear on courses/workshops without knowing why they are there and what the objective is...
    I am not saying that the public sector is bad, just that I see beter behaviours in general in the private one.

    Is this the fault of individual 'workers' or the organisation they work in? In my books it's a bit of both.
    - certainly oirganisations must lead in some way on the cultural and beahvioural norms expected - but this is a long-haul job and needs stamina.
    - individuals have a a part to play - and this is the difficult one to tackle. If someone joins a public sector organisation they should be as professional, effective and efficient as they can, it's the same for private sector. However, if what the public sector worker sees is that they don;t have to work beyond 4:30 or 5, and if you are late for a meeting no-one cares, and it is difficult to make any suggestions for chage because the decision making organisation is large, complex or unaccountable then this will wear down the most persistent and positively thinking individual eventually.

    I could go on, but you might be getting bored by now!

    Very keen to engage in more debate

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  • 8
    Project Eye wrote on 9th Jul 2010

    Here's a bit more grist for the mill ... there's no such thing as an IT project ...

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