There’s an article in today’s Guardian called Not fit for purpose: £2bn cost of government’s IT blunders, with the following summary:
The cost to the taxpayer of abandoned Whitehall computer projects since 2000 has reached almost £2bn – not including the bill for an online crime reporting site that was cancelled this week, a survey by the Guardian reveals.
I have no doubt whatsoever that the government wastes a vast amount on IT contracts, but I think that, by concentrating on the cost of cancelled projects, the article misses the point slightly.
If a project is clearly never going to deliver, it’s far better to cancel it than to fall into the trap of the sunk cost fallacy, and keep pouring money in in the hope that eventually everything will turn out OK in the end.
The real questions for me are ‘are the government’s IT needs being met at the most cost-effective manner?’ and ‘why does it take so long to realise that a project is doomed?’
I don’t know anything about the projects discussed in the article, or about how government IT contracts are handled in general, but I’d be willing to bet that the following guesses aren’t too wide of the mark:
- Someone decides that a new system is required, and produces a huge list of everything they think it needs to do. This goes out to tender, and the job goes to whoever manages to produce the lowest quote while still giving a reasonably credible impression that they can actually complete the work in the specified time.
- The contractor goes off and starts work. They talk to the civil servants who are responsible for specifying the system, but probably not to the people who will actually have to use it. They then go off and produce a design, get it signed off, and set up teams to work on all the identified subsystems.
- Every few months they deliver a progress report, assuring the client that everything’s progressing according to plan. After a year or so the schedule probably slips a bit, but they assure everyone that it’s jsut a blip, and the final delivery won’t be significantly affected (we can always trim the testing phase a little, right?)
- Because the contract fixed time, cost and scope, there’s only one thing that can be adjusted to keep the project profitable when the estimates turn out to have been optimistic: quality. Of course this ripples forward, with more and more time spent chasing problems caused by poor quality work in existing parts of the system.
- When (eventually) the first version of the system is delivered, there are integration problems, it doesn’t quite do what the people specifying it actually wanted, and it turns out that large parts of the specification weren’t that important, but some vital features have been missed out altogether. Depending on just how big a disaster it all was, one of two things happens:
- The project gets cancelled. The contractor moves on to the next lucrative contract, and an enquiry’s set up to investigate the specific reasons for the project failure, completely missing the big picture.
- The problems are slowly ironed out, and the missing features are added to the requirements for the next release. The contractor rubs its collective hands at the thought of the massive fees they can charge for the change requests, and a huge amount of time is wasted arguing about whether each change is a new feature or a bug request.
I’m not (quite) naive enough to suggest that all these problems could be solved by wholesale adoption of XP, but I get the impression that the government (and the media reporting on these fiascos) isn’t even aware that there is a better way. With major companies adopting an agile approach now (or at least pretending to), how long before the people responsible for spending our taxes wake up?