back to article SUPER-SUEBALL heading IBM's way in Australia

IBM's Australian is about to be handed statement of claim over the failed health payroll project in the State of Queensland. The project initially had a budget of AU$6 million, but that blew out to $27 million. Things snowballed from there, with the project eventually costing well over a billion dollars and an inquiry finding …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Go

    Are you listening UK Gov?

    "Queensland has since banned IBM from doing any work for the State government"

    That's how you stop suppliers screwing you over, not just go, oh have a £100,000 fine, but don't feel to bad, here have another £5 million worth of contracts (that will actually cost £15 million).

    1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

      Re: Are you listening UK Gov?

      Whilst IBM are no saints in this debacle, it was precipitated by inept project management by the state. If IBM have been banned from having IT contracts in the state, have the people in the government been banned from project work too?

      1. Mark 65

        Re: Are you listening UK Gov?

        Whilst you might claim the project management was crap I believe it was revealed that one of the chief people involved was a contractor who was, ta-dah, an ex-IBM man who was deemed to have done his utmost to push it in their direction. He was also found to be f'cking useless.

    2. Chris Miller

      Re: Are you listening UK Gov?

      I agree, but the problem is that bidding for government mega-contracts is so complex and expensive (and, inevitably, ends in failure for most participants). that only huge operations can afford to play. You or I (or the small, competent computer shop round the corner) may say "bloody hell, I could do that for a tenth of the price and still make a huge profit", but we can't possibly afford the cost of the bidding process. The result is that the only people in the frame are a handful of large players (IBM, Crapita, ...) who all have a long track record of constructive (or should that be obstructive) incompetence.

      1. glen waverley

        Re: Are you listening UK Gov?

        "You or I (or the small, competent computer shop round the corner) may say "bloody hell, I could do that for a tenth of the price and still make a huge profit", ..."

        London Ambulance system, anyone?

        (Tho to be fair, OP did specify "competent".)

  2. Ole Juul

    Was it a health payroll project to begin with?

    It probably started out as a newsletter ($6 million sounds about right) and then the project grew from there as more ideas were added to the brief.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    "[T]he Commission concluded: the primary cause of the problems suffered by the Payroll System project was the State’s 'unjustified and grossly negligent conduct."

    IBM is just one firm that takes advantage of simple fact that the politicians and their staffs are incapable of successfully bringing such a project to completion. I've seen such projects crash and burn, managed to rescue a couple of high-visibility (executive career ending) ones, even done greenfield golly-gee-wiz fun ones. The political types and especially the people they surround themselves with aren't up to this. Everything's negotiable may work in the boardroom, not so much in engineering.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Completion?

      Public sector are incapable of getting a project through the Analysis phase to get a set of working requirements and incapable of making decisions in a timely fashion to allow change management of the half baked set they do assemble.

      1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

        Re: Completion?

        Public sector are incapable of getting a project through the Analysis phase..

        To be fair to public sector employees (I was one once) the problem isn't so much public sector as politicians. As soon as a politician starts getting their claws on a project, any hope of a sane outcome evaporates. Remember, politicians are only interested in sound-bites about the here and now: They don't worry their little heads about minor implementation details. So it's up to the people at the coal face to try and best turn the politicians wild (& vague) fantasy into reality. The problem is, is that for really big projects, politicians (and policies) will change over the lifetime of the project, so the poor project manager is stuck trying to nail jelly to a wall.

        Some of this can, of course, be controlled by the simple mantra of "Keep it simple, stupid". But small successful projects aren't very impressive on the campaign trail so the politician would rather something a bit more meaty to crow about.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I see an opportunity...

    New! Agile! for! Government IT!*

    *copyright pending

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: I see an opportunity...

      "New! Agile! for! Government IT!*"

      Yahoo! will! sue! you!

  5. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Who?

    > SUPER-SUEBALL heading IBM's way

    makes you wonder whether Sue Ball has ever contemplated tossing around a few sueballs of her own for all the bad press she gets?

  6. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

    No one will remember CCTA...

    ...the UK Government's Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency. Though you may remember some of the methodologies that they created, such as PRINCE and ITIL...

    It was a centre of expertise for computing projects, set up in the late 1970s, run by civil servants and contracted specialists, which provided expert contract and project support to all Government computer projects. Since the staff there were all very experienced, and were negotiating ALL projects, they had the computer industry well under their thumb, and projects came in to time and budget - in the 1980s and 1990s.

    The computer industry always lobbied against them, and finally got CCTA closed down in the late 1990s. Since then, government departments have been at the mercy of the big IT companies, who have been taking them for everything that we, the taxpayer, have.

    If the Aussies had a CCTA, the State Government would not have been able to produce a poor specification for their project. They would not have been allowed to add and amend the requirement in an uncontrolled way. And if IBM had performed badly in supporting the project, it would have been pulled by the independent CCTA rather than continued by the embarrassed State Government.

    Likewise, if we still had a CCTA, our computing projects would be run a lot better...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: No one will remember CCTA...

      Yeah, same as Sarbannes-Oxley and similar regulations preventing financial meltdowns.

      ITIL and PRINCE started as guidelines on what should be common sense applied to service and project management. And if they stopped at that, they would still be valuable. Instead, they became monsters on their own, where compliance with them is just impossible on a small scale and on a large scale add enough overhead to make them practically worthless.

      My favorite example is the fabled ITIL configuration management database: the tardis device that should solve everything but no one can have one implemented as per ITIL specs without devoting more resources to it than to actually keep items configured.

      1. Alistair Silver badge
        Coat

        Re: No one will remember CCTA...

        "My favorite example is the fabled ITIL configuration management database: the tardis device that should solve everything but no one can have one implemented as per ITIL specs without devoting more resources to it than to actually keep items configured."

        I've seen 6 of these ghost like objects. I say ghost like since they existed, but never quite materialized, always seeming just beyond the ken of those managing them and just beyond the reach of the accountants attempting to herd them.

        1. AndyDent

          Re: No one will remember CCTA...

          "Never quite materialilzed" but you could hear a lot of noise associated with them?

          love the Tardis imagery.

    2. Stevie Silver badge

      Re: and projects came in to time and budget ...

      Er, how do you explain the Met Police and Sperry going ten rounds over their fingerprint recognition non-system of money suckage circa 82/83 then? Can't be bothered to cite, but I was in the trenches between '81 and '84 and the horizon was ablaze from all the crashed and burned. I recall the figure of 10 million pounds being demanded from Sperry. Dunno if it ever got paid.

      Up-ballsed computer mega-projects were not uncommon in those days, when a success might be measured in managing to mothball the system in question before anyone suffered a brain aneurism and tried to run the bugger.

      In fact, Datalink (like The Register, but printed using ink on a flexible, vegetable-derived substrate) ran an article about a high-priced consultant who offered to work for free if the client would guarantee the project would go live, so bad was the design-for-mothballs culture.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Build our own government IT team

    And stop pissing away cash

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    27 million to 1 billion!!!

    No matter how badly the state can screw things up, this is a budget change of colossal proportions. Surely not all of that amount is pure overspending, so there was likely some kind of scope change mid course, which is not at all unusual in these big contracts.

    However, as inept as the state management could have been, it is hard to conceive a three orders of magnitude scope change while keeping it within the same project. So it is likely most of that money is pure, unadulterated cost overrun.

    My prediction: IBM Australia, facing such huge penalties, will threat to close out its Australian arm and the state will settle again.

    But it has not to end like that: don't forget that most of work business outsource to IBM is done by IBM in turn outsourcing to other parties, so there are not that many jobs at stake. Service operations will continue to be done by the outsourced IBM entity, but cheaply since you can remove the IBM profits from the price. And with a huge enough fine the state can subsidize a lot of unemployment for a loooong time, enough for the ex-IBM workers to find another job.

    1. Mark 65

      Re: 27 million to 1 billion!!!

      My prediction: IBM Australia, facing such huge penalties, will threat to close out its Australian arm and the state will settle again.

      That's not really a threat though. Most would be glad to say "hand over the money and don't let the door hit you on the arse on the way out". Fact is Government departments, inept as they are, always have plenty of willing suitors. The "we'll take our ball with us" threat of megacorps holds little weight these days when most import low wage developing world labour and then take the piss with their taxes anyhow. Fuck'em.

  9. Turtle

    Pentagon.

    "The project initially had a budget of AU$6 million...Things snowballed from there, with the project eventually costing well over a billion dollars...."

    This is very very impressive. Not even the Pentagon could manage something like this.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Pentagon.

      "This is very very impressive."

      I'm with you on this, Turtle. In a world that celebrates diversity and equality, we should stop the biased one-way feting of success, and similarly laud world-leading failure, graft and incompetence. Perhaps the Nobel committee could put their minds to devising a series of prizes for these things.

      There have been plenty of more expensive IT disasters round the world, but to spend a billion Aussie dollars on a simple transaction processing system that could have been bought three quarters functioning (at least) off the shelf is (I believe) unparalleled.

      I take my hat off to all involved. To every one who did a bad days work. To everyone who sat and did no work, but still billed their time. To everybody who worked to line their own or their employer's pocket through malicious decisions. To everyone who delayed their input, or who changed their mind after things had been agreed. To those hard-of-thinking who couldn't even conceive that letting a contract with a half baked specification might lead to tears. To those in charge of wasting a billion dollars of public money, and who walked away with no sanction.

      Now, to those who tried to make it work, who endeavoured to produce a different outcome, who understood the technicalities of systems, of process design, of project management: Make sure you're on the winning team next time.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Pentagon.

        "Perhaps the Nobel committee could put their minds to devising a series of prizes for these things."

        Or maybe a new strand for the Ig Nobel awards?

        On the other hand, are huge big data project failures really so improbable/

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Pentagon.

          "On the other hand, are huge big data project failures really so improbable/"

          No they aren't. The UK DoH wasted £10bn on a totally failed integrated IT project. But that was always wildly over-ambitious, ignored all the realties on the ground along with the cludgey part public part private design of the NHS (something inherent in its original design, and that the lefties still shut their eyes to).

          What sets the Queensland Health Payroll project apart is that it wasn't a big data project. It was a need for a modest payroll project that should have been done and dusted for a few hundred thousand dollars if properly planned and executed. And in practice it could probably have been contracted to a neighbouring public sector organisation for half that up front cost.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not the IBM of yore

    Once upon a time IBM was a great company that took great risk upon itself with even greater success. After slaying the 7 dwarfs and other of its own children, it grew complacent and nearly died. A great salesman endowed IBM with a new marketing vision that revived the giant. The renewed success made the giant greedy. To satisfy its need, the giant shunted away the extra expense of skilled labor, marketing on past glories while rotting from within. Eventually, those who bought IBM began to notice. Sueballs were flung. IBM developed an expertise in matters of law. The empire was saved. The diminished giant continued its existence, a shell of its former self.

  11. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
    Coat

    IBM's Australian is about to be handed...

    He must be a busy little bee!! Shirley a company as big as IBM could afford to send him/her an assistant or a BOFH.

  12. Stevie Silver badge

    Bah!

    IBM engaged in Unethical Practices? Unthinkable!

    But a larger question looms in what passes for my mind: Why on earth would anyone hire an American company to do anything concerning health care? American Big Business hates the idea of centralized government-run health care and will stop at nothing to prove that it doesn't work and is too expensive.

    I worked for a man back when computers had actual transistors in 'em who wouldn't let IBM salesmen across the company door jamb on account of the things one of them had done sometime in the past as the result of not getting the winning bid in with him.

    Good to see some old-school business practices can survive half a century of "modern thinking".

  13. chris lively

    I'm not really surprised. Specs are crucial when attempting to price out a new system. However it requires really tight control by both parties to make sure the thing doesn't balloon up like a puffer fish.

    I've been on many projects where the initial spec was pretty simple only to have costs radically go up as the customer decides to add all sorts of new things. Hell I've been on projects where the customer gave such conflicting specs that it was simply impossible to deliver while demanding the system meet all of them or be sued.

    Meanwhile a consultant will happily accept spec changes as long as you're still paying the bills. I'm not saying IBM is blameless here, but if the Aussie government had bothered to competently manage the project then it would never have ballooned like this.

  14. qzdave
    FAIL

    Fool and his money

    Not only is a fool and his money easily parted, in this case, he is also dumb enough to waste even more of it hiring lawyers in an un-winnable trial. Nutcases.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Infinite Number of IT-Monkeys...

    ...with Laptops should be able to nail an ambitious project given an infinite period of time and infinite resources.

    Can anyone relate any successful stories of an overly-ambitious, poorly-defined, government project with continual scope-creep, insufficient change-control-management, and a zealous belief from the user that their IT requirements/problems were uniquely different from any other similar/identical organisation and therefore required a bespoke solution and a supplier whose execs saw the soaring costs as an opportunity to increase revenue projections rather than re-set expectations.

    I mean this is the typical scenario for huge government IT vanity-project, isn't it - there's been so many of them, at least one of them must have been a resounding success...

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