Whitehall focus - Turnbull warns against simultaneous IT projects

30 Jun 05
Sir Andrew Turnbull has warned senior civil servants to avoid implementing key IT projects at the same time, to improve the way that Whitehall handles major public service reforms.

01 July 2005

Sir Andrew Turnbull has warned senior civil servants to avoid implementing key IT projects at the same time, to improve the way that Whitehall handles major public service reforms. He urged an audience of mandarins and leading private sector partners to 'suppress demand' for concurrent changes to services.

In one of his final speeches, Turnbull, who retires from the civil service as Cabinet secretary this month, said Whitehall had improved its management of key IT projects following a string of high-profile failures, and he outlined his thoughts on avoiding future difficulties.

Speaking at the Institution of Civil Engineers on June 22, Turnbull listed eight common causes of failure in implementing IT projects, including the lack of a clear link between projects and an organisation's key strategic goals and 'the lack of clear senior management and ministerial ownership' of projects.

The Office of Government Commerce has outlined six steps that departments should take to prevent these problems. These include the establishment of project management centres and employment of specialist accounting officers to control costs. But Turnbull said: 'I would add a seventh – don't resurface Whitehall in the rush-hour. When you're making major changes to a system, it makes sense to stabilise the other changes and suppress demand.'

He said that problems with computer systems at the Passport Office in 1999, for example, were partly created by making the change in IT at the same time as requiring children to have their own passports, which exacerbated demand.

Critics have long attacked the government for attempting to implement expensive IT projects at the same time as service changes. But Whitehall has remained under pressure to speed up ministers' ambitious public services reform programme, leaving services exposed and spreading central government IT expertise thinly across new projects.

Turnbull cited the introduction of the congestion charge in London as an example of good timing. It was introduced during a national school half-term and in the week with the lowest level of traffic use in the capital.

One senior civil service source told Public Finance that Whitehall was slowly learning its lessons over IT having 'undoubtedly had its fingers burnt'. He added: 'There exists now a growing pool of mandarins with a sophisticated understanding of how to implement very difficult IT projects. The current level of knowledge is by no means perfect, but there has been genuine and consistent improvement across most departments.'

Radical overhaul would split civil service in two

The current civil service should be abolished and replaced with two institutional groupings to help the government deliver radical policy reforms, a leading Whitehall academic has claimed.

Colin Talbot, head of public policy at the University of Nottingham and a regular adviser to public bodies, told the Public Management and Policy Association on June 21 that future ministries should be smaller and should focus on policy development and formulation.

Much larger, independent agencies should then be set up to deal with policy management and implementation – or service delivery – because the current civil service has largely failed to develop policy management expertise, Talbot said.

He cited a litany of past failures, including the BSE crisis, arms to Iraq, the 'arms in Iraq' issues outlined in the Butler report and problems with the Channel Tunnel rail link, as examples of the problems caused by the current system.

Talbot's suggested overhaul would split civil service bodies into a National Public Service and a Government Policy Service. It is a concept that has gained support among some mandarins, he claimed.

He said a core NPS employed across ministries would 'free up' the GPS 'to become much more expert at those policy things which [the civil service] does not do well now – becoming better at policy-entrepreneurship, managing policy and delivery networks'.

The GPS would be divided into specialist agencies for particular services and would also be responsible for evaluating those services. A similar system was implemented in Sweden many years ago and the idea is likely to appeal to some members of the current government, which has committed itself to improvements in service delivery during its third term.

However, it is unlikely that such a radical move would be considered. The PMPA audience members included permanent secretaries and former special advisers. Many dismissed the split on the grounds that specialist agencies could experience the same problems that led to previous policy disasters.

But one source told Public Finance: 'The idea of increasing the number of specialist organisations focused heavily on service delivery is certainly something that has been discussed on a very provisional level across some departments.'







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