by Martin Veitch

HP-EDS UK boss: Civil servants are terrified by outsider views of IT projects

Mar 03, 2010
IT Strategy

In the second part of CIO UK’s interview with HP Enterprise Services (the former EDS) MD and VP Craig Wilson we talked about the challenges to contracts between outsourcers and government and public sector.

The public perception (OK, media perception) of many state IT projects is that they have a horrible tendency to meander on, fail and swallow vast amounts of taxpayers’ cash. Perhaps predictably, Wilson says that’s not a true picture in most cases.

“The first thing that is striking is that the rate at which [private- and public-sector] projects deliver really successfully isn’t notably different but I don’t think people hear very much about [government public-sector IT] projects that are successful. The Pension Credit scheme was almost a model of how to run a big public programme.”

But Wilson does agree that there are big differences in attitude in handling private and public contracts.

“[In the public sector] it’s very difficult to [call a stop on] bad projects. We don’t like it when a project is going off the rails but if [a private-sector project] is obviously failing and carries significant sunk costs, there is no problem with reframing it and moving on. Contrast that with public sector where there’s this public scrutiny on anything that looks like waste. People are terrified. Any experienced civil servant is wary of associating their career with risky change. We’re complicit [in the services sector] as well because suppliers should have the experience and gravitas to push back when they know things are not right. Too often they go along with things because they’ve got a contract and this is the only means they have of going to be paid.”

Despite vast spending, Wilson goes along with the consensus view that state IT provision is still a “patchwork quilt”:

“We don’t have something that looks like a really concentrated IT provision There are about 130 different datacentres; we run the whole of HP on three pairs globally. The government’s IT strategy has a lot in it that’s orthodoxy. The question mark is: do they have a governance structure to get on and make changes, and if [government CIO] John Suffolk were sat here, I think he’d agree with that.”

He contrasts the UK with the US where the “Federal CIO has primary legislation that supports what they want to do and power to divert budgets. Here, everything the government CIO attempts to do has to be done by consensus with the support of the big-spending departments and it’s just a fact that they have their own policy priorities [that sit higher on their agendas].”

The good news is that at least there is “a healthy debate”, he feels, adding that the National Audit Office has done good work even if “it’s not very trendy to praise them”. But he admits that he is “not convinced we have an environment where people are confident we won’t revisit some of the disasters”.

One way forward for the UK’s larger programmes may be to create a “Star Chamber” of civil servants and others and “give them the space to give solid advice that isn’t always couched on how it looks on the written page and say ‘Look, we’re going in the wrong direction’. There’s a big gap between people delivering the systems and the people who make the policy decisions. Where there are the big misses you can nearly always trace them to decisions made early on.”

Craig Wilson interview Part One.

Coming soon: Craig Wilson on what happens to ICT services after the impending general election and a “sea change” in how services are delivered.