Why the government IT strategy is on a well-worn road to ruin

When there's no risk of failure, you can never succeed...

By failing to define clear targets for its IT strategy, the government risks ending up with the same blinkered approach that stopped previous administrations from successfully transforming public sector IT, says silicon.com's Nick Heath.

According to Suetonius, the insane Roman emperor Caligula once declared a magnificent victory over the sea god Neptune - bearing chests full of seashells to Rome as proof of the triumph.

But the less than glorious truth was that a Roman legion had stood in the sea, chopping and stabbing at the waves until Caligula's rage abated.

At times it can seem that government apes Caligula in its delusions about the achievements of its flagship IT projects.

Months or years after IT programmes have hit the rocks, officials and ministers are still on the prow singing the project's praises - paying scant regard to the water lapping at their feet.

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The government's IT strategy needs a clearer sense of direction, says the public accounts committeePhoto: migclick

Even though the NHS care records service project has left scores of health trusts in England waiting years for IT upgrades that haven't arrived, former Department of Health CIO Christine Connelly recently said "the contracts were delivering good value for money".

And in the dying days of the doomed national ID card scheme, the identity minister Meg Hillier was still talking about how the ID cards would help students open bank accounts - ignoring the wider point that the cards were a solution looking for a problem.

When individuals or groups are left to judge their own performance, they unsurprisingly tend to find they're doing rather well. Just look at the track record of the media-led Press Complaints Commission.

It is a problem, then, that a report published today by the parliamentary spending watchdog, the public accounts committee, found that the government's IT strategy lacks hard measures of success.

The committee welcomed the strategy's ambitions to move government towards smaller, more manageable IT projects and make it easier for small and medium-sized companies to become suppliers to government IT projects.

However the committee found that of the 30 actions in the IT strategy, there was a lack of "quantitative targets, or a baseline of current performance, which will make it difficult to measure success".

The committee said it looked forward to the publication of the implementation plan for its IT strategy in August 2011, which it said it expects "will include milestones on which we can hold government to account".

The problem is that in the hands of government, even the most implacable targets are slipperier than a greased pig. Take the goal of cutting the number of government datacentres from thousands to no more than 12, set under Labour but which originally remained a target under the coalition, that has now shifted to a new target of reducing datacentre running costs by 35 per cent.

Without hard metrics to provide an independent yardstick of success and failure, government is free to define success on its own terms. The danger, then, is that departments looking after their own interests muffle the warning signs that signal imminent failure, in favour of highlighting the positives.

This refusal to acknowledge problems has led to IT blunders on a national scale. An OGC gateway review into the ID cards project in 2003 warned that the perceived benefits of the scheme were "not on a scale to justify the costs", but it was only after seven years and just under £300m had been spent on projects related to the scheme that it was stopped.

This type of failing is why government must implement meaningful measures for its IT strategy that establish where it is now and where it wants to be. It shouldn't try to redefine what those targets mean 12 months down the line.

Without the use of clearly defined metrics as an independent measure of success, government can sell missteps as achievement, and keep failing projects on the road to ruin.