Monday, 8 June 2009

Government IT projects – time for change

The debacle of the C-Nomis project (see Tony Collins blog for the background) highlights the need for fundamental changes in the way that government (primarily Central Government – local government seems to be far better) procures new IT systems.

As I have previously
posted, I recommend breaking large projects down into smaller, more manageable chunks. But, perhaps more importantly, ensuring that the requirements for the project have been accurately and completely defined – prior to a specification stage that includes detailed walk-throughs with real-life end users. This is the most important phase of an IT project – yet is typically rushed or overlooked, and frequently completed without adequate reference to the managers and end-users that will be using the system.

I’m a great believer in “phased fixed price” contracts for dealing with large projects that require the development of customised software – splitting out each phase into separate contracts where the current phase is on a fairly firm basis (ideally fixed price against an agreed definition), with budgeted prices for the next phases (typically based on some broad brush assumptions of what will come out of the each phase). Such an approach allows for the requirements collection phase to be contracted separately and carried out by potential eventual developer (if you want to know how to do this in a way that allows for subsequent changes in contractor, please contact me).

All too often, major government IT contracts are awarded to big service suppliers rather than splitting off the development stages (that frequently generate lower revenues than the roll-out and related infrastructure stages) to specialist software developers, and leaving the other stages to the service suppliers. The culture of specialist software development businesses is different to that of the major service suppliers, a culture which is more likely to deliver a better software solution (whilst service suppliers would be better at the other stages of a large new IT project).

As the C-Nomis project proved, a lack of focus on the core requirements, system design and expected benefits, has resulted in a system that met neither the business objectives, nor the project budget and timescale. I suspect that it’s been a great business success for the service supplier who has benefited from the budget increase from £234M to £513M – no doubt far outweighing any bad PR from this obvious failure.

How many more project failures will there have to be before we see Government recognising the need for splitting up large projects into smaller, more manageable chunks, ideally allocated to different specialists for the different types of contract?

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