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November 23, 2020updated 31 Mar 2023 10:57am

Why major UK government IT programmes fail and cost the taxpayer billions

"Transparency and honesty" required on major programmes, warns National Audit Office.

By Matthew Gooding

Big government IT projects are notoriously problematic, often running late and coming in billions of pounds over budget. Now a new report from the National Audit Office has identified four key areas why these and other major public programmes run into difficulties.

The report, Lessons learned from Major Programmes, takes a closer look at the government’s Major Projects Portfolio, which includes digital transformation schemes like the new Emergency Services Network (ESN) mobile communications programme as well as transport infrastructure such as HS2 and military schemes like Carrier Strike, which involves the building of new aircraft carriers and related technology.

Government major programmes

Government IT projects are often dogged by delays. (Photo by Pres Panayotov/Shutterstock)

“In order to secure best value from the significant amounts of public money the government has committed, it is crucial that government can successfully navigate the challenges of delivering its major programmes,” writes author Gareth Davies, the NAO’s comptroller and auditor general.

“However, government programmes often encounter difficulties, taking longer and costing more than planned, and not delivering the intended aims, with significant and high-profile consequences.”

Indeed, the ESN scheme, which will see the emergency services switch their communications from radios to a dedicated 4G network, is running over budget and in September a further two-year delay to its 2022 implementation date was announced. Keeping the current Airwave radio system operational for an additional two years is likely to cost taxpayers £1.1bn.

With the government’s Major Programmes Portfolio comprising 133 projects with a combined whole-life cost of £442bn, a considerable amount of public money is at stake.

The reasons government major programmes hit hurdles

The NOA identifies four key themes it sees repeated in major programmes that encounter problems.

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  1. Scope – the remit of the project is poorly defined or not aligned with overall objectives or strategy.
  2. Cost and schedule – the limits of schedule and cost estimates are not taken into account, leading to unrealistic promises.
  3. Interdependencies – many of these programmes include multiple objectives and contributors, which are often not managed effectively.
  4. Governance and oversight – programme management doesn’t adapt or change as the project develops.

New digital systems are often seen as a way to cut costs, but organisations do not take the steps necessary to realise savings, the report says.

“When the potential for savings does exist, bodies do not put enough effort into developing the actions necessary to realise them. We see bodies assuming that savings will arise from adopting a particular approach to delivering a programme, a high-risk solution such as a technological change, or assuming that industry will develop initial ideas further without an explicit instruction to do so,” it states.

Government major programmes

The government paid a heavy price for developing electronic tags for offenders. (Photo by Ekvator Yapim/Shutterstock)

Technology projects cited include the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) electronic tagging programme for offenders, which saw the government attempt to develop bespoke tags for criminals combing radio frequency and GPS tracking. The project was delivered six years late and more than £60m over its initial £130m budget, and was described by MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee as a “catastrophic waste of public money which has failed to deliver the intended benefits”.

Part of the reason the scheme stumbled was because interdependencies and roles were ill-defined, the report says. The MoJ expected Capita, its main contractor, to act as integrator for the different elements of the programme and manage three other suppliers, but “Capita was contractually not responsible for the work and performance of the other suppliers, and considered it lacked leverage to perform the integrator role”. This led to a lengthy dispute and delay, which eventually resulted in the MoJ taking the integration role back in-house.

Transparency and honesty (and good data) are vital

The report lists a range of improvement points to help government departments deliver major programmes efficiently, and says all four areas need to be underpinned by “transparency and honesty”, both at Whitehall itself and from its suppliers.

But it says: “Despite its importance, we have found issues with both the technical quality of programme information, as well as organisational cultures preventing the right information from emerging.

“Without these, the quality of decision-making may suffer from over-optimistic assessments of programme progress and problems that could have been identified earlier may suddenly emerge.”

According to the report, when the Department for Work and Pensions initially rolled out the online Universal Credit system, it lacked a detailed plan and critical information it needed to assess how it was performing. This meant the department “could not measure its progress effectively against what it was trying to achieve”. This has since been rectified, with indicators introduced for payment timeliness which have helped the department ensure that 90% of claimants now receive payment on time, compared to 55% in 2017.

As well as aiming to improve the flow and quality of data, organisations should “ensure that commercial arrangements incentivise transparency and honesty within the supply chain”, the report concludes.

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