Two years ago, Her Majesty's Government set up a body called the Major Project Authority (MPA) to help a notoriously fumbling Whitehall deliver big projects on time. The current government claims that prior to 2010, just one in three important projects were delivered on time or on budget. As MPA head David Pitchford said, "I've led major projects around the world and I have to say that when I started this job in the U.K., standards were not great."
Late last Friday, before a long holiday weekend, the MPA released its first big audit. The study covers 191 pieces of investment and resource commitment by the British state, which together add up to nearly £354 billion ($536 billion) of taxpayer money. The study assigns a traffic light status to government projects -- red, amber, green -- an appealingly simple ratings scheme compared to alternatives couched in project manager jargon or bureaucratic obfuscation. It's made somewhat more complex by five shadings in all, thus green, green-amber, amber-red, and so on.
In addition to IT, projects include infrastructure, education and government change programs. More than half the audited projects got green or amber-green designations, indicating that successful delivery is probable or highly likely. However, of the eight projects flagged at some level of red -- late -- four were IT schemes.
The late IT initiatives include a £122 million ($185 million) shared services plan being undertaken by the Ministry of Justice, the British equivalent of the Department of Justice, which was due online last year and will now finish two years late, in 2014. A smaller project, the Home Office's £424 million ($643 million) Application and Enrollment Contract, also is now officially two years overdue and won't be finished until November 2014. Two Ministry of Defense projects -- a £5 billion ($7.6 billion) network upgrade and a £1.1 billion ($1.7 billion) intelligence-related system -- also got red flagged.
In less dodgier condition but still seen as in need of help are two projects that rely on IT to succeed: Universal Credit, a social welfare reform project, and G-Cloud, Britain's attempt to save costs on IT procurement by increased use of the cloud. However, the report qualifies the Universal Credit's amber/red rating -- successful delivery deemed as in doubt with major issues to resolve -- by saying its rating is from September 2012.
Such pass marks are seen as unhelpful by at least one critic of big government IT in Britain, investigative computer journalist Tony Collins, who complains on his website that the audit "says nothing about the uncertainties and risks" of the proposed changes to the country as a whole. The government on the website Gov.uk says it publishes data six months in arrears "to reflect the balance between the scrutiny which transparency secures and the natural sensitivities around such projects."
The MPA audit blamed Britain's resistance to change as one problem faced by the £4.93 million ($7.5 million) G-Cloud program. This project "still has a significant number of challenges to overcome" if the government wants it to reach its savings objectives, it said, including a change in "culture in terms of approach to ICT [Information and Communications Technology] as old ways of doing things are so deeply engrained."
Also, scaling G-Cloud has been difficult due to the team's focus on startup activities and "the lack of appropriate funds and resources," the report said.
Despite the brickbats, the government calls the study landmark in its reform program. "Publishing this report will transform the management of expensive, important projects and will help hold Whitehall to account," said Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude. Since its creation, the government claims, the MPA has helped save over £1.7 billion ($2.6 billion) total, or £100 ($152) per "working household" in the country. It confidently predicts it will "double the success rate of major projects" compared with progress of such programs three years ago.
Not everyone is convinced. The entire MPA process is flawed by the fact that the government has allowed departments to "write their own story," said journalist Collins, and there are no figures to compare the original forecast costs of a project with the projected costs. He calls it a "series of compromises."