back to article We spent how much?

According to the grassroots campaigning group the Taxpayers’ Alliance, overruns in UK government IT projects have run into several billion pounds. If a similar tally were made of private sector overruns, they would most likely be of a similar order of magnitude. It is just that public sector overspends are much better publicised …

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Farcical

A good article. A good project manager is hard to come by. We build web apps, and find that no one is particularly forthcoming with issues about their part in the build process. For instance, a third party feed we might be implementing won't tell us about the pitfalls in their platform (we had one that transcoded video, but whilst it did this, the response to a request for some XML returned a 500 server error). You have to be aware that these problems might well arise when using other systems, internal or not, and you have to account for the likelihood that they will appear. Being proactive always helps - you get the detail you need sooner. There is of course just poor judgement in terms of time to complete a particular part of the work even in isolation to deal with. Find a good PM, and you're halfway there. There is no reason at all why these projects should fail (late delivery in my eyes is failure), other than bad management.

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How does a project get to be a year late?

One day at a time.

(Frederick P Brooks - The mythical man month)

Time = money.

"It is just that public sector overspends are much better publicised …" and private sector projects have better accountants who can hide it better. Don't want to let the shareholders know the level of incompetence.

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Stop

Taxpayer's Alliance

The taxpayer's alliance is not a "grassroots campaigning group" - it's a well-funded public lobbying organisation, funded by a small group of wealthy individuals and businesses.

It isn't a public membership organisation; all ordinary people can do is give it money, but that doesn't give you any say.

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You can't plan what you don't know

By definition, projects deal in doing new things. Things that haven't been done before. Things the company don't have experience of.

Consequently, if there was ever a true and frank project plan, it would read something like this:

What is the project going to do? Well, we're not quite sure. We think it'll be something along these lines .... but there could be lots of things that go wrong so we'll probably have to make lots of changes, to fix unforeseen problems, in unknown ways. We may even need several attempts before we find a solution to some of the trickier problems.

How long will it take? Can't say. If everything goes exactly right first time, and there are no disruptions, delays, complications, faulty components or changes - then somewhere between 6 months and 2 years is a good guess.

How much will it cost? No idea. We'll start off with a team of designers who will produce a pie-in-the-sky design which is utterly impractical - and then they'll leave. After that we'll get tenders from suppliers who will lie about the cost and capabilities of their products. Once we get the development team up and running, their people will be continually churned so we'll have to spend half our time (at full commercial rates) re-training new people who will that make all the same mistakes their predecessors made. Once we get to integration, none of the documentation will be ready as the management will have focussed efforts on delivering modules - as that's what their bonuses depend on. That means the first two attempts won't work, so we'll have to re-do most of the coding from scratch. Once the product is implemented, it'll turn out that none of the interfacing, legacy, systems will be able to talk to it - so there'll be massive re-writes of those needed. And by the time it's all finished, there will be a COTS version available from all those programmers we trained up, which will cost 1/10th the price and work right out of the shrinkwrap.

However. No-one in their right mind would ever come clean on the true costs, time, change and problems that a project will inevitably entail. If they did no-one but a madman would ever sign off on anything. So in order to get a project off the ground, everyone lies in the project proposal. Since both sides know they're lying, the signer-offers assume it'll cost twice as much and take twice as long as anyone says. Both sides also know that by the time IT hits the fan, they will have all moved on and it'll be some other poor schmuck's problem to explain the overruns and problems. This is the long standing tradition in IT, construction, defence, space exploration, and pretty much everything that involves doing stuff for the first time. So long as all parties play along, everyone's happy - including the barrel-scraping shock-hack tabloids who later get to dish the dirt on all the port, corruption, profiteering and incompetence in government and industry projects.

Phew.

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You missed one thing

The inevitable political trick of adding more scope to justify the increased cost to ensure we are caught in a loop of:

Needing more money > Offering additional scope > This causes further delay/cost > Need more money

Otherwise Kudos, it was like being at work

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Lack of overall knowledge

It's not just the project manager that matters, often the higher management will decide to go a particular route based on a lack of knowledge, for instance many such decisions are made between managers and salesmen on the golf course without any consultation with the people who would actually have to use the system, implement it or are familiar with the existing systems it would be replacing or integrating with. Quite often a project manager, even a good one, will simply be lumped with an unrealistic task and told to get on with it.

Really any such decision, let alone the actual implementation of it, need to involve all relevant parties and have people both sufficiently qualified, and sufficiently experienced with the existing systems. All too often these people are left out of the loop until its too late.

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Anonymous Coward

agreed

A large number of our project overruns/iffy deliveries are caused by us being given an implementation date, that's set in stone, before anyone has even started looking at requirements.

The worst ones are when we get the "set in stone" implementation date after we have quoted, but it only leaves about half the time we said we'd need. That's the sort of thing that needs a PM who understands 'resources' and 'useful resources' are slightly different beasts.

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If there's no room for overspend, projects still get completed...

Having worked in IT for many years and been involved with many projects (generally as an implementer, engineer or architect, occasionally with a PM hat on as well) I've come to the conclusion that project budgets overruns are generally allowed to happen because everyone secretly knows that the organisation will pay for more time/hardware etc, if its told that its 'essential' to deliver the project, and so acts accordingly.

In reality, when I've worked on projects that could pretty much destroy a company if they go bad, and there is simply no further budget, everyone somehow manages to deliver. It might not be exactly what was envisaged at the start, but it for-fills the brief and often contains some remarkable ingenuity in order to deliver despite obstacles.

Humans perform best when the brown stuff is approaching the fan, allowing projects to slip can often stifle real creativity and genius.

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FAIL

I've noticed while working for major outsourcers

From idea to funding takes 2-3 years by which time the costs and spec are so outdated it should be done again, but they then go ahead and have, after 5 years, a system which was redundant 3 years ago

welcome to government procurement chaps!!

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Don't forget another reason

Ever notice when you get a nice plump project how many mouths appear out of nowhere to feed in the trough? Usually middle managers who want to show how important they are by creating useless documentation and meetings that just get in the way of deliver of a project. Good project management is a luxury instead of the norm.

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