The IT disaster known as C-Nomis - an initiative, begun in 2004, by the National Offender Management Service to build a single offender management IT system for the prison and probation services – has been well documented over the past week following a National Audit Office investigation that found that the project had been hampered by poor management leading to a three-year delay, a doubling in project costs and reductions in both scope and benefits.
Computer Weekly used the project to illustrate one of its top tips for project managers, in its editorial:
“Number one in the list of Computer Weekly's top tips for project managers is advice that's supposed to be humorous, even slightly cynical. It says that projects with realistic budgets and timetables don't get approved.
But reality trumps our satire: big projects keep being approved on the basis of unrealistic estimates of their cost and time to completion.
One government project executive has told Computer Weekly that budgeting in government is a game: if the Treasury and the department in question want the scheme approved, they turn a blind eye to irrationally low initial estimates of the cost and the timescales.”
C-Nomis joins many Central Government projects that have been unmitigated financial disasters – costing taxpayers over half a billion pounds – but small in comparison with other failed or failing projects like NPfIT that have cost taxpayers billions of pounds.
In any commercial environment, there would have been an internal search for the guilty, inevitable unemployment, and (if the taxpayer had to bail out the company) potentially loss of agreed pension rights. It has been suggested that the same fate should befall civil servants who bear responsibility for these IT disasters – not only unemployment, but also loss of their valuable, taxpayer funded pensions. Will it happen?
Firstly, we’ll never find out who was truly guilty – as I noted in my post NHS NPfIT – a successful Government project? the definition of a successful Central Government project is one that lasts more than two years. As civil servants typically only stay in their positions for around two years, this ensures that the person that started the project doesn’t finish it, and the person that finishes it doesn’t start it. If the project is a success, both can claim the credit; whilst if it fails, both can blame each other.
Next, it will always be the fault of the supplier – “underestimated the project”, “Government had no choice but to fund the overrun”, .... etc .... To a certain extent, and in some cases, I might agree, but in most cases the supplier has no choice but to work on the incomplete brief given for the project, bidding low to win the business, on the basis that the gaps in the requirements can be exploited to increase the contract value greatly. (However, projects like NPfIT where the contracts appear to have limited this ability for suppliers to exploit changes to fund overruns, have shown that in such confrontational approaches no-one ‘wins’, both client and contractor lose – and the end user gets an IT system that does not meet his needs).
Finally, and I would agree with this, through no fault of any one individual, the current method of Central Government procurement of major IT projects remains seriously flawed – contracts are insufficiently scoped, requirements incomplete, end-users inadequately consulted – and contracts let prematurely, before either client or contractor know what is really required. (e.g. see my post How NHS NPfIT should have been procured)
We must move back to a procurement process that allows for major projects to be properly analysed and designed before final contracts are let – ideally in a phased approach that, whilst giving us less certainty on final costs, is more likely to wind up with a properly designed system to meet real end user requirements, for less cost and shorter timescales than the current processes......