Comment: Silence surrounds failure

16 Mar 2005

One of the issues that keeps cropping up when you talk to people who know what’s going on in Government is the amount of money it is spending on buying in expertise (and I’m giving that word its widest possible definition) without being able to keep things under control. So we have some big name contractors putting in complex systems costing huge amounts of money, at times way in excess of what was originally envisaged.

The funny thing is that we never hear clear admissions of responsibility when things go off the rails, which they clearly have done in the past and continue to do so now. It’s not really that the projects are complete failures but we have seen several instances where things haven’t turned out quite like they were planned and where we have poorly performing systems that have cost huge mounts of money.

While we haven’t seen any analyses or reports of what happened in the case of the legendary Pulse system for the gardaí, there are rumours in the trade that it was a case where costs went astray and the end result (if you can judge from what some of the users are saying) isn’t the sharpest piece of IT kit that was ever put together — by a long chalk!

It’s impossible to say how many similar situations have arisen before or since, because there is no practice of review or analysis that could inform prospective projects or from which people could take lessons. And, quite honestly, it is a great pity that experience is not being shared. Indeed, some would say that it’s absolutely amazing.

But the absence of such useful analysis may be attributable to the unwillingness of people to put their hands up when they are almost certainly guaranteed to be shot for an admission of failure, however small or insignificant that might be. It seems that the one thing you can’t do in the public sector is admit that everything didn’t go to plan or that it might have been better to do things differently. In fact, it’s political suicide for those concerned — the officials and their political masters — to own up to having screwed up.

Like it or not, the system crucifies those who admit failure or even to a little weakness in that ministers are answerable in the political arena for the actions of their officials. In the world of politics, it seems that the first objective is to hammer your opponent with whatever you can get your hands on. And officials who want to hold on to their careers are not going to be accused of giving ammunition to those who want to score points off their minister — it just doesn’t do them any good.

The upshot of this is that we have a situation where mistakes tend to be buried or kept quiet with little being recorded about why things have gone wrong and very few people who are willing to discuss project outcomes in detail. So there is no way for others who may be in danger of falling into the same hole to get important and timely advice or the benefit of the experience that the Government has already paid for. A friend of mine who works in the Civil Service says that you’d be astonished at the resourcefulness of officials when it comes to “explaining” what went on in a project. In fact, he says, some of them are so talented they could represent the sinking of the Titanic as being a roaring success!

How can this situation be changed? How can people be persuaded to admit that things haven’t gone as planned or could have been done better? While it’s hard to imagine that the political system can change, I think there are many politicians who see merit in moving away from the blame game. But the biggest change should perhaps be in the way these big investments are being managed by the public servants themselves.

Many large-scale projects are still being treated similar to the acquisition of PCs. Projects now go well beyond the straightforward installation of hardware and off-the-shelf software, and involve new processes and procedures or even new organisational structures. The technology is part of a much bigger project that has more to do with reprogramming people than deploying machines. Organisations have to be reshaped and the risks are increasing. So they need to be managed. In fact, they should no longer be thought of as just IT projects because they are large-scale organisational change projects.

This means that dumping these on the IT people and telling them to get a “major external consultant” can be a recipe for disaster. External expertise is almost certainly required, especially if the project is breaking new ground and the organisation hasn’t got the required project planning and management experience (which is the case with a lot of organisations). But the first expert you need is the one that can scope out all the dimensions of the project and can identify what, if any, “major external consultancy” is required, and then advise on how they should be recruited and managed. Given the type of advice required, it stands to reason that it should not be sought from the same “big external consultancies” that have been at the centre of the white elephants created in the past.

The other thing that you should do is put in place a system or methodology for project review at key points to ensure that things are not going off the rails and that you can shout “stop” before you have to get into making excuses and hiding the problems. As I’ve said before, there are loads of ways that things can go wrong and projects have to be approached with professionalism at all stages. Planning for taking risks is absolutely essential if only to ensure that your rear end is fully covered. To my knowledge there is as yet no system like this operating in government in Ireland.

By Syl O’Connor