Magazine article Public Finance

It's All in the Implementation

Magazine article Public Finance

It's All in the Implementation

Article excerpt

Much work is taking place in Whitehall to improve implementation capabilities. More is planned, with some debate in the run-up to next year's election about whether faster and deeper civil service reform is needed.

But it's also important to ask whether government policy decisions could be better, with a greater eye on their 'implementabilitÿ' - to avoid the risk that civil servants are asked to deliver the undeliverable.

The highest profile here over the years has been reserved for big information and communications technology projects from Universal Credit or e-borders at present to Connecting for Health in recent history.

By any standards, many projects are challenging because of six key factors:

* scale - some UK public service is large - for example, the NHS is one of the biggest services in the world, and it is dependent on ICT for modernisation;

* user requirements are complex - these are not necessarily driven by operational considerations when the government makes frequent and complex policy changes that have considerable impact on systems;

* security considerations are material - national security and avoiding external fraudsters means that the supply and vetting of contractors requires a costly and time-consuming rigour;

* data quality is often appalling - because of the tempo of policy changes and consequent operational change over decades, the bread and butter is seldom good; contractors need time to understand the Heath Robinson design, which is costly to replicate by new contractors;

* 'siloism' is rife - the lack of a corporate culture means systems are designed that are not cognizant of other synergies or opportunities within the same department or across government departments, which leads to suboptimal value for money for government or public services as a whole; and

* lengthy delivery - given the above complexities and constraints, it can take so long to implement systems that the original business case and technology strategy may be outdated by the latter stages of implementation. However, 'pulling the plug5 and writing off costs is often politically sensitive. But soldiering on can mean even greater resource growth and asset impairment.

The Major Projects Authority is adding value to many big programmes through its assurance, expertise and toolkits, and the Cabinet Office is capping government ICT contracts at £100m to avoid monolithic deals wherever possible.

This announcement earlier in the year fits into the common narrative of an oligopolistic market for large government ICT contracts and clients' lack of rigour in letting, managing and enforcing them. …

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