Friday, 13 February 2009

Not merely 'forgotten'.

Reading today's news coverage about the new Courts IT system, one might think that delivering IT systems late and over budget is somehow a unique public sector problem. Twenty odd years in IT, a large part of that as a project manager, taught me that it simply isn't so - but the private sector is better at keeping its disasters quiet.

I remember one of my bosses telling me one day that "All IT projects always over-run by 30% - even when you've allowed for that in the initial estimate". It was sound advice.

There are a number of reasons why projects over-run. None of them is unique to the public sector, but some of them are more prone to happen in that sector. Over-optimism about what can be achieved in a given timescale is one obvious reason. Others include a lack of precision about the requirements, and trying to be too ambitious.

The tendering process is a major issue – and this is one to which the public sector is particularly prone. Awarding contracts on the basis of the lowest price actually encourages suppliers to 'bid low', usually in the belief that they can use 'contract variations' to blame the customer for any delays and over-runs – and such variations are often depended on as the main source of profit for the supplier.

Once it becomes obvious that a project is going to be late, and after the recriminations have been dealt with, someone has to decide what to do about the problem. One very common response is to say that the implementation date must be met at all costs in order not to lose face, and the favourite trick at that point is to start talking about a 'phased' implementation. This enables all concerned to say that they have met the date – it's just that they've only delivered half of what they said they'd deliver.

To achieve this, they sit down and start deciding what is the absolute minimum functionality with which they can still go live, and everything else gets stripped out, so as to concentrate effort on the essentials. And that, for me, highlights the worst aspect of this little fiasco.

It isn't simply the case that Whitehall 'forgot' about the need to issue bilingual documents in Wales – it's much worse. According to the report, the people concerned sat down and consciously and deliberately decided that bilingual functionality could be omitted in order to adhere to the planned date.

Despite it being a statutory requirement to provide a bilingual service, these people decided that they could afford to ignore it. Can anyone imagine any other statutory requirement which would be treated in such a cavalier fashion?

The Courts service is far from being the only public body to behave in this way. About three or four years ago, Companies House introduced a new service, allowing companies to file their returns on line. They introduced a financial incentive for companies to do so – half price filing. But the service was available only in English – so effectively, those of us who had been filing our returns in Welsh and wished to continue to do so were penalised for continuing to use Welsh. Only £15, but nevertheless, this was a direct financial incentive to small companies to switch to an English only service.

In August, 2005, the Welsh version was promised by January 2006. Then by 31st March 2007. It still wasn't available - two or three full years after the English service was launched - in June 2008. As far as I know, it's still not there now, but I guess that I'll find out when I try to file my next return.

For all the legislation apparently bestowing 'rights' to use the language, the reality lags a long way behind where UK bodies are concerned.

1 comment:

MH said...

There was a very nice story in the Grauniad a fortnight ago about how Wales' approach to computerized health records was so much better than England's.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/jan/29/computing-nhs

I'm sure those who know more about health records than me will still point to problems in the IHR system, but in principle it seems we have found a far better approach with far fewer problems.

If administration of the Justice System were devolved to Wales we'd probably have been able to devise a better, less complicated and less expensive system than LIBRA.