CXO

IT projects: Is the private sector really better at getting them right?

CIO Jury members on how everyone has skeletons in the cupboard...

Perhaps there was a golden age when the public considered government IT projects to be something other than high-tech money pits.

But certainly now the popular perception of public sector IT projects is that they are not only just an opportunity for the propeller heads to waste good money on arcane and incomprehensible technological edifices, but that it's our money they're wasting.

People also think once the techies have finished building the system and switch it on, there is a good chance the whole thing will immediately go wrong and start spewing private health data and tax records onto the internet faster than crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Behind this caricature there is - at least - a small amount of truth.

It's undoubtedly fair to point to the public sector wasting hundreds of millions of pounds over the past couple of decades on IT projects that have either collapsed entirely or simply failed to deliver the benefits to outweigh the costs. This waste, of course, has to be set against the billions spent wisely on projects that have been a tremendous success, improving public services and saving money.

And as successive reports into these failures have made clear, much of the responsibility for the failure lies with the politicians rather than the techies - in short, politicians and technology mix like oil and water.

But public sector IT failures are public. These projects are rightly examined by the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, and their findings revealed to the general public so that lessons can be learned from past disasters.

In contrast, private sector failings remain private, except when the failure is so catastrophic it stops a company doing business or leads to an embarrassing wrangle in the courts with suppliers.

So between total openness in the public sector and opaqueness in the private, it can be hard to work out who is really doing a better job of delivering IT projects - and whether public sector IT projects are doomed to be less successful than their private sector counterparts.

This week we asked silicon.com's exclusive CIO Jury members: "Are private sector IT projects more likely to be a success than projects in the public sector?" Responses from the CIOs were evenly split, with CIOs saying the same problems can hit projects whether they are funded by taxpayers or shareholders.

city of london

Has the private sector got a better chance of IT success?
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

As Alastair Behenna, CIO at recruitment consultancy Harvey Nash, pointed out: "It's not about hiding failure in the private sector but about scale and visibility plus the emotion generated by the perceived use and abuse of public monies in failed public sector projects." He added: "Both sectors have skeletons in cupboards they'd rather not be taken to task on."

And Ibukun Adebayo, director of IT at social care organisation Turning Point, argued: "The reasons for project failures are usually the same, whether in the public or private sector - poorly defined scope of the project, lack of senior management commitment, and poor or non-existent controls to monitor and direct the project through to completion.

"If these issues are taken care of before the project starts, rather than during the project once things have started going awry, both the public and private sector would be able to boast a higher success rate of delivering projects to the benefit of the business."

Mike Wright, head of technology at investment provider Man Group, said in the public sector projects tend to be bigger - and probability of failure rises with size. There is also more turnover of ownership with the public sector whereas in the private sector once a project manager has been appointed "they are on the hook usually 'till the end".

Better accountability and flatter decision-making structures will make a big difference, said Mike Roberts, IT Director at The London Clinic, who added: "Commercial rigour is the key".

About Steve Ranger

Steve Ranger is the UK editor of TechRepublic, and has been writing about the impact of technology on people, business and culture for more than a decade. Before joining TechRepublic he was the editor of silicon.com.

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