Time to stop IT being tarred with the brush of politicians' failure

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Why am I not surprised that the UK comes ninth in world survey of good IT use?

Partly because it has taken until March 2007 for anyone in parliament to demand the heads of those responsible for a major public sector IT failure. The demand by the House of Commons environment, food and rural affairs committee that a cabinet minister and top civil servants be sacked for such a failure has rarely, if ever, been heard.

Yet the fiasco at the Rural Payments Agency, which the committee was investigating, is another in a depressingly familiar string of public sector IT failures.

But this report is different. It is the first to place responsibility squarely at the door of the cabinet minister and the senior executives who signed off the project at every stage, and demand their heads.

But what difference will it make? Skillful news management by the government, which chose the day the report was published to announce the splitting in tow of the Home Office, and other strong news stories – the Iranian hostage issue and the government’s embarrassment over losing a parliamentary vote on casinos - kept the issue off most front pages.

The Financial Times, which surely should be concerned with an issue that cost £500m of public money, didn’t even mention the report in its print edition, nor has it appeared so far on its website.

There is something rotten here. Too often the mantra “computer failure” is trotted out by organisations whenever something goes wrong. More often than not, IT and IT professionals are not to blame, but the industry has become a convenient whipping boy.

There are, of course, plenty of embarrassing IT project failures, yet when someone tries to hold to account those responsible, as MPs did this week, they are ignored or palmed off with apologies that have been repeated so often that they are utterly vacuous.

This process is frustrating - and it is not victimless. It is not just those who rely on the failed systems who suffer. IT professionals as a group carry the can for all this. Their profession is denigrated and that means their status in the organisations in which they work and the communities in which they live is undermined.

It is time to fight back. Sometimes that will mean telling those in power, whether it is the chief executive or the permanent secretary, the leader of the council or the minister that there is no IT fix for the business process problem they are trying to solve.

Sometimes it means good old-fashioned whistle blowing to try and shine a light on disasters in the making, so they can be put right before too much damage has been done.

But just as important, it means highlighting and celebrating success – projects that deliver tangible benefits, projects delivered on time, to budget and with the specified functionality.

As ComputerworldUK grows and develops – it is now a month old - we will try, with your help, to do this.

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