Major Government IT Projects In Peril, Warns NAO

The UK’s spending watchdog has warned that a third of government ICT projects are likely to fail.

That is the stark prediction from the National Audit Office (NAO) when it published its progress report on the delivery of major government projects.

Troublesome Projects

The major government ICT (Information and communications technology) projects in question includes “major service reforms, ICT projects and infrastructure and construction projects.”

It does not include other infrastructure projects such as railway work etc.

“There have been initiatives designed to improve the oversight and delivery of projects but their impact is unclear,” warned the NAO. “And it is of particular concern that a third of projects due to deliver in the next five years are rated as being in doubt or unachievable if action is not taken to improve delivery.”

Essentially, the NAO examined 149 government projects that come with a “combined whole-life cost of £511 billion.” It estimates these projects will cost £25 billion in 2015-16 alone.

The NAO admitted that the public sector “has had poor track record in delivering projects successfully.” It blamed these previous failures on “key recurring issues” with an “absence of portfolio management at both departmental and government level” singled out in particular. It also blamed the “lack of clear, consistent data with which to measure performance; poor early planning; lack of capacity and capability to undertake a growing number of projects; and a lack of clear accountability for leadership of a project.”

The NAO noted that the number of projects where successful delivery was in doubt or unachievable unless action was taken has actually increased since 2012.

It blamed this on the fact that the government has undertaken more risky projects in the last three years.

“It is particularly worrying that a third of projects (37 out of 106) due to deliver in the next five years are rated as red or amber-red (the NAO’s most severe classification),” it said. “Progress in improving portfolio management is disappointing with no single organisation having a view of the whole portfolio of government projects.”

The NAO also said that government projects can be hampered by unrealistic expectations and over-optimism.

“I acknowledge that a number of positive steps have been taken by the Authority and client departments,” said Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office. “At the same time, I am concerned that a third of projects monitored by the Authority are red or amber-red and the overall picture of progress on project performance is opaque. More effort is needed if the success rate of project delivery is to improve. “

Government Failures

The NAO has been consistent about highlighting problems with government projects in the past. In December for example it slammed the government for its “failed” e-borders scheme.

The NAO pointed out that the troubled scheme was already four years late, marred by a protracted legal dispute with a US contractor, and lacked a consistent strategy.

But perhaps the most famous government IT failure in recent times was the botched £12.7 billion NHS Programme for IT (NpfIT). In 2011, the Coalition government axed the NpfIT programme it had inherited from the previous government.

And it seems that it is not just the Conservatives that struggle with ICT projects.

In January 2010 an investigation exposed the cost of Labour’s computer blunders whilst it was in office. It revealed that British taxpayers had been left saddled with a bill of more than £26 billion for computer systems that suffered severe delays, or ran over budget, or were cancelled altogether.

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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