Barely a day goes by without public sector IT failure making headline news. But with the number of projects being given the red light increasing over the past year, why has the industry got it so badly wrong and what can it do to turn the problem around? The fundamental reason for the low success rate is not down to projects being too complex as many reports suggest; rather that the approach used to deliver them is, more often than not, fundamentally flawed.
Failure is caused by two inherent weaknesses in the approach taken: fixing requirements upfront and lack of user involvement throughout the life of the project.
Software projects have traditionally been carried out by fixing and over-specifying the needs at the start, and then only allowing change via tortuous and typically contractually sensitive processes. As a result, costs and deadlines can spiral out of control with the financial penalty often transferred onto the taxpayer. IT suppliers have been known to use this to their advantage, pricing extremely competitively at the outset, conscious that change is inevitable and will allow them to recoup their margin downstream.
Lack of end-user or stakeholder involvement throughout the process can also lead to a project’s downfall. Typically a user will be involved at the start to define their requirements and then again at the end, when it is time to use the new software or test the final solution. This means that the software delivered may resemble what was specified, but not necessarily what was and is actually required by the user or citizen.
Transforming the methods used in IT projects is therefore vital but not a difficult task. The public sector should take a leaf out of the private sector’s book and consider an agile approach. The agile methodology is nothing new but, as projects and requirements become more complex, the approach has come to the fore as it ensures key users are involved continuously and have the opportunity to make changes along the way. The cost and benefit of each feature is assessed repeatedly and managed within the available budget, to ensure that what is delivered meets the current needs and optimises value for money.
Until public sector ICT embraces agile development methods that take account of changing requirements throughout the project lifecycle, the citizen will continue to wait for the outcome he has so often been promised, and the taxpayer will keep on paying for the mistakes made by the government and IT industry.
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