Learning from IT disasters

Martin SepionIT has huge potential to improve our lives. We all benefit from the fruits of the digital revolution through which we are now living. Communication, shopping, banking, navigation etc. have all delivered tangible benefits which we would now struggle to live without. However, over the past 15 years there have been a succession of expensive and high profile IT projects that have failed. Public sector IT failures are particularly visible. For those of us who work in IT this is particularly depressing. We see many of the problems from the inside and have ideas about what can be done but are struggling inside a structure which is not ideal. This is why the excellent Public Administration Select Committee report Government and IT – “a recipe for rip-offs”: time for a new approach is such an encouraging read.

The key points from the report that resonated with my experience were:

  • Too many Government IT contracts go to a small number of very large companies
  • There is an unhealthy relationship between these companies and the Government, some would say they act like a cartel
  • Very large projects become too large to fail
  • Government procurement procedures disadvantage smaller firms
  • Systems are over specified
  • Those commissioning IT systems should explain what they want to achieve in business terms and let the supplier offer solutions
  • Government should move toward an ‘agile development’ model where flexibility and innovation are more likely than in the traditional up front system specification approach currently used
  • IT is an enabler, it is not the project
  • The project should be a new or changed business process which supports the organisational business plan. IT alone cannot fix a broken process
  • Departments that outsource their IT fully have insufficient skills in-house and so are unable to identify what they want and so are in the position of asking the IT firm to tell them what they should have
  • Government should develop a set of core open standards which focus on interoperability between systems.
  • Reference to proprietary products and formats should be dropped
  • Systems should be specified to conform to open standards to ensure they can avoid lock-in to a single supplier
  • They should be open by default so that data is only secured when needed
  • Users should have a say in the design of systems
  • Control of personal data should be delegated to individuals
  • Canary Wharf

    I have always felt that the quality of software is dependent upon the quality of the relationship between the user and the developer. Programming is more than sitting at a screen all day it is also about talking to people about what they want. One the reasons I have been drawn into IT is the fact that it is a great leveller. Good IT should empower people. Delegating control is one of the reasons web 2.0 has been so empowering and successful. Youtube, Facebook, Wikipedia, Amazon and a host of others are successful because they delegate control, or an element of control, to the user. Government systems need to do the same. This will present many challenges to government, local authorities, education, health and social services but it must become a primary aim of IT strategy. It may be that the successful exploitation of digital technologies in the 21st century will require changes to the “hierarchical nature of civil service management structures” (p29 para 85) where workers and users are credited with more capability and autonomy. This may require new organisational structures based upon the concept of knowledge workers and informed citizens rather than the highly stratified organisational structures that are the norm today in the public sector. IT should be empowering for both the individual and the agencies that deliver our services. Perhaps it can become the catalyst for change within our public organisations rather than a symbol of expensive mistakes. Government Select Committee reports may not be everyone’s preferred bedtime reading but this one struck me as being founded in the reality I have seen during my career.

    You can read the full report at

    Martin Sepion is a Senior Adviser at JISC RSC London
    m.sepion@rsc-london.ac.uk @Martin_Sepion

    One thought on “Learning from IT disasters

    1. Pingback: RSC London News » Blog Archive » Innovation in an era of austerity

    Leave a reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

    WordPress.com Logo

    You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

    Google+ photo

    You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


    Connecting to %s