by Ian Cox

Carrying the can at the BBC

Feb 06, 20145 mins
IT Leadership

Last month the BBC finally confirmed that John Linwood was sacked from his job as the organisation’s CTO in July last year over the failed Digital Media Initiative (DMI). Linwood, who had been suspended in May when the project was cancelled, is the only executive to be held accountable for the failure which has cost the BBC in the region of £100 million.

The National Audit Office (NAO) observed that the BBC Executive “did not have sufficient grip on its Digital Media Initiative programme. Nor did it commission a thorough independent assessment of the whole system to see whether it was technically sound.” In other words the BBC’s senior team, which would have had to review the business case and approve the expenditure prior to the project starting, did not sufficiently understand the details of a £100 million investment that it had approved. The NAO has also highlighted a lack of adequate governance and reporting which means that not only did the Executive not fully understand the project, it could not monitor its progress and nor did it have sufficient visibility of the issues as they arose.

Given the sweeping nature of the NAO’s observations, it is perhaps surprising that only one of the BBC’s senior team has been removed from their post. Indeed, some commentators have remarked that Linwood is being used as a scapegoat, citing the fact that if the BBC Executive did not fully understand the project in the first place then it should not have been approved. In which case at least some members of the Executive should also be held accountable.

Since the BBC’s announcement there has been a succession of claims and counterclaims from Linwood and various BBC executives about what really happened, how much of the system has been and could have been implemented, and the costs that have been written off by the BBC. This will no doubt rumble on for months as Linwood is taking legal action against the corporation and is still involved in an “internal process” with his former employee.

It is not for me to comment on the specifics of the DMI and Linwood’s sacking. However, the details of yet another failed public sector IT project do prompt a more general question with regards to the CIO role and the level of accountability it should carry for failed IT projects. When an organisation has to write-off significant sums of money because of a failed system implementation, why shouldn’t that organisation’s technology leader be held accountable?

If the Board approves an IT investment without fully understanding the proposal, what the organisation will get for its money, how much business change will be required or the associated risks, is that the Board’s fault or the CIO for not ensuring a sufficient level of understanding prior to a decision being made? The CIO is after all the Board’s subject matter expert when it comes to technology. It is part of their role to ensure that their C-level colleagues have an adequate understanding of technology proposals to be able to make an informed decision. If a Board approves a multi-million pound investment without understanding the detail then yes, they must accept some of the responsibility but isn’t it also reasonable for them to rely on the opinion and advice of their technology expert as they would do, say, their legal expert. And if that advice proves to be incorrect, inaccurate or misleading then shouldn’t there be some form a sanction for the person giving that advice?

Of course it is not always that straightforward. Most IT investments are usually part of larger transformation initiatives involving multiple parts of the organisation, changes to processes and roles, and the development of new skills and capabilities. They are also likely to involve multiple external partners, consultants and contractors. They are complex projects with numerous stakeholders and many variables. Issues, problems and delays of some form are almost inevitable. If such an initiative fails then it is rarely due to one decision or individual. With the benefit of hindsight and after a detailed review, it is not unusual to find a catalogue of mistakes made throughout the lifecycle of a failed change initiative.

It may be unfair therefore to single out the CIO as being solely accountable for a failed technology-enabled change initiative. There are many factors outside of the CIO’s control but they can at least report on these by bringing them to the attention of the programme or project board, steering committee or executive team, as appropriate. Perhaps even recommending the project is stopped or put on hold.

But if there is any doubt about the success or otherwise of the technology aspects of an initiative then the responsibility has to lie with the CIO. And that’s regardless of whether any failings are real or just perceived. Ensuring understanding, managing expectations and delivering key messages are all a core part of the CIO role. Failing to manage stakeholders, lack of engagement and poor communication are just as damaging to an initiative as poorly conceived or badly implemented technology.

CIOs want a seat on the board and the authority, profile and status that comes with such a position. They must also be prepared for the levels of responsibility and accountability that come with being a part of the top team. And sometimes, in extreme cases, this may mean carrying the can for a failed project.