Government IT failures - could we do better?

Once again the UK Government has a failed IT project. Failed as in almost three times over budget (an approximate overspend of a whopping £456 million), 3 years late (and still not delivered) and not satisfying fundamental requirements.

The chairman of the committee commented, "There was not even a minimum level of competence in the planning and execution of this project." Ouch!

So what went wrong? From the Public Accounts Committee report it appears that some of the key issues were:

  • Underestimating technical complexity
  • Underestimating the need to standardise ways of working to avoid excessive customisation
  • Poor planning
  • Poor financial monitoring
  • Poor supplier management
  • Too little control over changes

Costs and progress were not monitored for 3 years?!

Sounds familiar? It does to me - it smells like a typical "throw the requirements over the wall and hope" waterfall failure pattern.

But would a more agile, flexible approach helped us here?

Continuous delivery of requested features that were truly "Done" and ready to ship would have highlighted the project was floundering early. Iteratively delivering real features enables open, honest and irrefutable reporting, including useful data like estimated end dates, and cash burn so providing financial monitoring.

Highlighting a failing project early allows the right conversations to take place, leading to corrective action before the situation is critical. It is highly likely that problems with work practices, excessive customisation and technical difficulties would have been identified and fixed early.

Finally, controlling changes. By making the resistance to change as low as possible and applying a customer focussed "what is important" criteria the system would have had the most valuable features implemented first. This ensures the true nature of the project reveals itself very quickly - so if it is technically complex, it is discovered quickly and either mitigated (maybe the difficult feature is not that important after all?), or the project can be shelved or cancelled completely.

So in my view, using some common sense could have helped this project deliver, or at very least not burn £456 million in a failure.

There are two more points I would make. I don't know who was to blame, nor do I care. But I can see two fundamental behaviours that compounded a bad situation:

  • The Government abdicated its responsibility as Product Owner. Allowing a team to go dark for 3 years, especially when they have effectively a blank cheque, is simply ridiculous.
  • The Supplier abdicated its responsibility as development team. Even if the Product Owner is not engaging fully, I believe that a Team has a professional responsibility to inform them of progress, good or bad.

I see these failure modes all the time. But it does not have to be like this - there are a growing number of genuinely professional companies, teams and developers who could improve on this performance if only they were given the chance.