My prior post on the UK’s massive NHS IT project referred to Edward Leigh MP, the retiring head of the Public Accounts Committee of the UK house of Commons.
Mr Leigh has distilled a number of his observations into an Open Letter to MPs. He has suggested 10 Key Lessons to be learned from the time he has spent, over 9 years, looking into projects and how public money has been spent. He expanded on these themes in another Open Letter to whoever succeeds him. It is well worth reading.
These lessons are:-
1. Complexity impedes effective delivery. Public services are often complex, inflexible and inefficient. Services should be kept simple, with less means testing and more standardisation.
2. Project management must be improved. In particular, public bodies must reduce optimism bias in their planning of projects and be more honest about what can reasonably be achieved and the risks to delivery.
3. IT procurement is particularly weak. Projects are over-ambitious, overly complex and fail to deliver what is promised while costs rocket.
4. Core management skills are in short supply. Too many bureaucrats have never run anything outside the public sector.
5. Information must be used intelligently. Accurate information is needed to know what is happening and to make timely, informed decisions about how to get things back on track or, if necessary, call a halt to projects and programmes that are failing.
6. Efficiency savings must be real. Departments are always promising efficiency savings but the reality rarely lives up to the rhetoric.
7. Government purchasing power must be maximised. Though it is a hugely powerful customer it rarely gets the best deal when buying goods and services and is too often ripped off by suppliers.
8. Fraud and error must be tackled head on. Taxpayers lose faith in government when they see their hard earned cash seeping from the system.
9. Government must learn from experience. Government needs to learn from its failures and its successes, so that mistakes in one part are not repeated elsewhere.
10. Public scrutiny adds value. It must be taken seriously by senior civil servants.
These seem eminently sensible and straight forward to me, but then I am a simple soul.
Now Mr Leigh wrote these 10 points in the context of the UK, but the principles would seem to be of a more general application in the context of public expenditures and to apply equally well in NZ.
Indeed,as a tangential observation, I venture to suggest that with a little bit of amendment, a number of these principles would be applicable in the private sector as well. However, I digress.
I found his comments on IT procurement especially interesting:-
Reliable information is at the heart of efficient and effective government but, where this has been recognised, too often the response has been to buy a new IT system without planning what they need and allowing for adequate testing. Time and again, Departments have wasted millions on IT systems that fail to live up to promise, come in late and cost hugely more than forecast.
He then gave a number of examples. Mr Leigh concluded his comments in this area with the following:-
Successful delivery of IT projects requires adherence to three common principles: ensuring senior level engagement; acting as an intelligent client; and making sure that you have means of realising the benefits from the project. Problems have occurred where board level engagement with major programmes and projects has been found
wanting, resulting in a failure to identify and act on imminent risks to delivery. Departments have not always shown themselves to be intelligent clients, with poorly defined requirements and a lack of capacity to engage effectively with suppliers; and only a minority of programmes and projects have carried out final Gateway Reviews to determine if they have delivered the benefits they set out to achieve.
A key point in his comments is the last, which I have highlighted. The issue of benefits achievement is critical to my way of thinking. Delivering the system is the beginning, unless it does the job, then it may well be valueless.
As someone involved in looking at a large number of projects in both the public and private sectors over many years I understand where Mr Leigh is coming from with his remarks.
I am sure that a number of my readers will be able to think of their own examples.
Mr Leigh has some interesting things as well to say about efficiency savings. These are relevant given our government’s desire to constrain costs, gain efficiencies and improve ‘front line‘ services:-
Given the pressure in the current economic climate to deliver more for less, it is particularly disappointing that when it comes to real efficiency savings, the reality rarely lives up to the rhetoric. The reviews of government efficiency programmes by my Committee have shown that claims of achieved savings do not stand up to close scrutiny. In 2007 we found that there was a question mark over nearly three-quarters of the claimed £13.3 billion annual efficiency savings. If efficiency gains are to be anything other than empty words, more must be done to make them real and demonstrable. They must not be one off cuts, but savings deliverable year after year. And they are not genuine if, as we have found in a number of cases, they are achieved at the expense of the quality of the service provided.
It would be interesting to see what the situation is in a NZ context.
Overall though the message that comes through though is very clear:-
- robust governance – to ensure accountability and clear understanding of roles, responsibilities and obligations of all concerned
- strong and critical qualification of projects to seek to minimize risk from over complexity and ‘gold plating’
- focus on benefits to be achieved, and ensuring that they are real and not a mirage
- rigorous assessment of aims
- rigorous review of outcomes to determine lessons to be learned and communicated to all involved across the public sector
Perhaps it would be appropriate to consider Tim Pullar-Strecker’s recent articles here and here, for example, in The DominionPost on a potential new system for Housing Corporation against the backdrop of Mr Leigh’s comments.