UKGov IT problems – tediously predictable
UKGov is trying to improve its digital offerings through increased use of open source and improved functionality, but it’s far from plain sailing. Why do UKGov IT problems occur so often, and how do they occur?
It comes down to three major elements: lack of accountability, failed project management and the old issue of legacy systems (both technical and cultural).
Accountability and metrics
In the good old days, MegaCorp signed the contract, provided a service of sorts, and sat back to watch the money roll in. UKGov has been slammed time and again by the National Audit Office for being unable to analyse the effectiveness and ROI of these contracts. Joe Harley, ex-government CIO, pointed out himself how key this is in managing UKGov IT projects:
“Metrics is key in all of government IT and if we can’t measure it, we can’t manage it.
…though he goes on in the interview quoted to say that though there is still work to be done, he believes good progress is being made, in direct disagreement with Bill McCluggage’s opinion on the matter. However, Harley does feel that people within government should be more accountable for their actions, rather than anonymising everything to the level of departments and committees. An ex-DWP employee goes further and claims the government should be firing the big companies that fail to deliver, something which at the moment is, apparently, rarely done.
Arguably, this is the most significant element of UKGov IT problems. As we’ve seen time and again, change of the magnitude involved in government IT projects needs to be properly managed (the contrasting fortunes of Munich and Freiburg open source adoption were directly attributable to change management, or not), whether in the context of migrating from package A to package B, or designing a whole new system.
According to the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, the government simply doesn’t possess the required project management skills to see through the grand projects it dreams up. Perhaps this comes down to mindset and perception of where risk lies. According to this Computing article, there’s a tendency to overstate the benefits of the project and understate the difficulties. Given the nightmarishness of working round legacy systems, projects often do need to be on a big scale and grand in vision, and there needs to be complete veracity about the time, money and work required to deliver these complex projects, with plenty of wiggle room. This is not the usual basis for government projects of any description.
Hundreds of billions of pounds spent by government are reliant on outdated IT systems struggling to handle the demands placed on them in 2014. The complexities of getting these systems to work together are mind-boggling and result in an unstable network with a legacy system at its core. The system used by the Border Force is a prime example: it’s unstable and “at risk of collapse”, according to the Public Accounts Committee, but with no clear plan or timescale for replacing it.
Is politics the problem?
The ongoing saga of the Universal Credit system reveals the politics-with-a-small-p contributing to UKGov IT problems. We hear now that Francis Maude has pulled government IT experts from the project due to snowballing tension over the continued failure to deliver. This means the DWP (whose current site, incidentally, doesn’t work with most modern browsers) now has to look for alternative IT specialists, which means further delays and more expenditure. Contrast this with the collaborative and co-operative spirit of putting together an open source project, and perhaps you don’t have to look far to see where most UKGov IT problems come from.