Monday, 7 January 2008

IT - Are Government Cock-ups Uniquely Bad ?

Exclusive to all newspapers last week was the news that the Government has wasted £ 2 billion on badly-executed IT projects. And the rest ! You can find a handy summary of recent episodes courtesy of the well-informed Dizzy, and Private Eye has covered these scandals for decades.

The Drew has had some exposure to government departments over the years and could also tell some horror stories. (High on the list from personal experience - no names, Minister - would be the development from scratch of a rather basic database, when superior generic products were available from PCWorld for £ 200.)

Fact is, I’ve seen the private sector being royally ripped-off too, primarily by so-called System Integrators (again, no names). Another quick story from personal experience: a blue-chip energy company spending around £ 6 million on a trading system that did no more than could easily be achieved using – coughs - MS Access ®: and the bulk of the dosh went to the SI, not the software
vendor (*gnashes teeth*, I was once a software vendor …)

So – is government uniquely bad at IT, or are their cock-ups just more high-profile ? There are many less prominent but equally vivid red faces in large organizations everywhere.

ND


UPDATE

11 comments:

Real Schadenfruede said...

The probelm of databases is one that I have had to contend with many times over the last 10 years or so. Fundamentally, the problem is caused because managers like to have information avialable to them and they find that databases give them that informaton at a click at a click of a button. All manner of graphs, pie charts, statistics can be extracted from a database with supreme ease. However, putting the information into a database requires immense amounts of work. Take the NHS database for instance. Someone might have very little in their health records but someone else might have a 4 volume encyclopedia written about them. My wife has numerous scans of her womb in her records - but no longer actually has a womb. Someone has to go through all this stuff and put it into an electronic format.

Millions of records get worked on, processed, sorted, cleansed so that one manager can get a graph he wants at a click of a button.

Daft, of course, but it is the manager that has the power so its the manager that gets his wishes fulfilled, at the expense of everyone else.

Lord Bogus Highamighty said...

The problem is that if you seek advice from a computer geek he often turns out to be sufficiently autistic that he has trouble talking to humans.

CityUnslicker said...

cough, database sales are an area of expertise for me. I broadly agree with RS above.

The issue is getting data in and getting the right data in. The nature of data is that is changes dynamically and you need to keep it up to date.

The same reason makes most corporate CRM systems a waste of time; companies then oftern buy new CRM software when they only really needed to do a good data cleanse.

As for private sector IT, I think there are many examples too, but people tend to get fired for incompetence at least and in theory only the shareholders suffer.

Real Schadenfreude said...

Ah yes, CU, CRM systems. Ours is a work of fantasy. Having realised that putting in the truth about not having any customers is likely to result in not actually having a job, many salesmen will happily invent customers and projects till the cows come home. Then they steal projects off of salesmen in other countries. Or they roll over projects into next year that have actually failed. Or they define a new project that is really a forced re-design due to a small change to a device we are selling to the customer. Its amazing how inventive they can be. If only they were equally inventive about wining some business.

Mark Wadsworth said...

A former senior tax inspector told me that HMRC did the original self-assessment computer system in house, it was on time, relatively cheap and it worked fine (take it from me, it worked fine, all things considered). Companies House also have a brilliant on-line system. Ditto HM Land Registry. You can look up 23 million council tax records to see what band a house is in and so on.

Where it goes wrong is when departments start sub-contracting stuff to their cronies in 'the private sector' and when they start inventing new databases (to generate more business for Nulab donors and cronies), this is where the wasted billions are, like NHS spine, ID cards and so on.

Nick Drew said...

It's back to the Croydonian Catechism

- If I'm buying for myself with my own money, I care about quality and value-for-money

- If I'm buying for myself with your money, I no longer care about value

- If I'm buying for you with your money ...

Bullshit Spotter said...

There is no problem with databases or IT projects etc. etc. etc. Databases are tools like any other and it is the quality of the input that counts, broadly.

The problem is accountability. When someone, a Government, makes the decision to spend billions of public money, they make the decision, now with Labour after ten years, with the knowledge that a cock-up will not result in any kind of negative consequence.

Would they dealt with incompetence in the same manner as the private sector I would guarantee that there would far less cock-ups and far less paid.

We need accountability, and it is as simple as that.

CityUnslicker said...

BS - welcome and sound points you make. Private sector companies do screw up a lot. But then people get fired. In the public sector you are allowed to make the same mistakes again....

ZinZin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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