The Ministry of Justice could be set to finally join the online era.

It has promised to set up an eBay-style online resolution service for minor civil disputes by 2017. The department is also part-way through a £160 million ‘common platform’ initiative to fully digitise the paper-based criminal justice system. The project aims to create a single online platform for case information and is also due to be delivered by 2017.

The MoJ has a history of failed big IT projects. Its national offender management system ended up costing about £700 million - more than double what was originally expected in 2004. The department paid £444 million for the Libra case management system versus an expected £146 million.

Only last year it had to write off £56 million on an abandoned project to set up a single Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system with IT supplier Steria. 

So these new schemes are being closely monitored for any signs of failure. And everyone knows change on the scale needed will require strong leadership.

Constant change at the top

It seems odd, then, that last month it emerged the department’s chief digital officer (CDO) Paul Shetler (pictured) has been replaced after just a year.

His departure is only the latest in a series of leadership changes. CIO Nick Ramsay, Shetler’s predecessor, was only in post for a year, before leaving to become CIO of catering giant Compass Group.

It means the MoJ has had two different technology leaders in the two years since CIO Andy Nelson left in February 2013. 

It appears the department did not have anyone lined up to take the post. Unusually, the Government Digital Service (GDS) has filled the gap with its transformation head David Dilley, who has taken the MoJ CDO role on an ‘interim’ basis for ‘at least six months’.

GDS calling the shots

Even more curiously, Dilley will still report to the GDS, led by Mike Bracken, rather than the MoJ, which is of course ultimately responsible for delivering its own services.

Georgina O’Toole, director at analyst house TechMarketView, told ComputerworldUK that although “regular changes of people in key digital roles isn’t helpful”, Shetler’s move could be a good sign.

“The MoJ faces a mammoth task if it is to achieve a long awaited ‘joined up justice’ system; and digital will be at the heart of that.

“To have someone sitting within GDS who understands more fully the challenges the department faces may help to encourage stronger collaboration between GDS and MoJ, which should be seen as a positive,” she said.

An MoJ spokeswoman told ComputerworldUK: “We are confident Paul’s move will not affect delivery, which will remain on track.”’s unclear how much leverage Dilley will have within the department, given he’s there as a placeholder until the MoJ finds a permanent appointee.

But the changes at the top call into question the civil service’s idea of a ‘senior responsible owner’, a single, senior, accountable figure who bears ultimate responsibility for individual projects.

If this person changes several times during a project, it becomes harder to manage, more risky and almost impossible for anyone to be held accountable. 

Culture of 'empire-building' 

The MoJ digital team has racked up some small but solid achievements over the last two years. It has redesigned and digitised four online ‘exemplar’ services: applications for civil claims, lasting power of attorney and employment tribunals, and prison visit booking.

These successes show what’s possible when multidisciplinary teams come together, work iteratively, and focus on rapid delivery.

However sources inside the department warn it is beset by poor internal relationships, inertia and a culture of ‘empire-building’ with siloed separate teams.

This may pose an even bigger risk to the department’s plans to drag its services into the 21st century than the change of one individual at the top.

Indeed the high turnover of digital and technology leaders may be more a symptom of this poor internal culture than its cause.

And the MoJ’s new digital services, while impressive, are just a tiny part of the overall criminal justice system, which by and large remains shackled to inefficient paper-based processes, wasting millions of pounds and huge amounts of police, judges and citizens’ time.

Uphill struggle

Whitehall projects watchdog the Major Projects Authority has already warned the justice department’s ‘common platform’ initiative has 'major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas' and needs ‘urgent action’ to fix them.

The project’s delivery deadline has already been pushed back – it was originally supposed to launch before the election in May.

Sources close to the project have warned it is too big in scope, not sufficiently iterative or responsive and has the hallmarks of a traditional government ‘Waterfall’ style failed IT scheme.

Perhaps it can be turned around. But until the MoJ gets consistent digital leadership and develops a more united, constructive internal culture, it will be an uphill struggle.