Published by Parliament again

The House of Commons Public Administration Committee published the submission I made to their inquiry into the effective use of IT in Government. It gave me an opportunity to stress many of my favourite themes and assertions concerning procurement, risk, competence development, the headlong rush to ever-tighter integration, the obsession with process and the continuing lack of user involvement in system procurement and development and the almost total ignoring of the sociological context in which systems are installed and operate.

The full submission is available on the UK parliament web site here.

I have included the summary here for the impatient.

The financial crisis and resulting budget cuts provide the strongest driver and best opportunity yet to shake up UK Public Sector ICT systems procurement, project management and operation.

Key topics and themes include:

  • Decoupling of commodity infrastructure supply from the applications that run on them.
  • Recognition that:
    • ICT procurement is very different from construction or commodities.
    • Public Sector ICT procurement is different from corporate.
    • Every ICT procurement is different.
  • Contract frameworks must accept that change happens and support the agility to react.
  • Smaller projects must be encouraged – fear of aggregation accusations must be removed.
  • Obstacles to direct SME supply to Government must be reduced; the sub-contractor route is unsatisfactory, benefiting neither Government nor the SMEs.
  • Focus must be shifted from compliance to capability and competence.
  • Front-line users must be involved throughout the procurement and development process.
  • Early and repeated testing of applications during development, not just for final acceptance.
  • Integration is a two-edged sword – tightly coupled systems magnify and propagate faults.
  • Equating connectivity and integration with inter-operability is a big mistake.
  • The perspective on risk needs to be re-aligned; if suppliers can't 'price it in' or perceive it as too onerous they will walk away.
  • Obsession with 'process' must replaced by leadership and innovation, in depth – ritualising procedures abolishes initiative and creativity.
  • Similarly, excessive use of analytical 'methodologies' to create abstractions far removed from reality abolishes judgement and understanding.
  • Realising that in most information systems the only really important factors are the users and the information they interact with via the applications; the rest is infrastructure.
  • Project management must be more flexible, recognise human factors more and not just accept change but prepare for and enable it.
  • There must be recognition that:
    • The more human-created software ICT systems incorporate, the less deterministic and more unpredictable they become.
    • The more systems depend on human-mediated content, the more sensitive they are to human behaviour – adding a sociological/ethnographic dimension.
    • ICT systems are installed in a context of vested interests, prejudice and fear.
  • The most important document in a project is the one that describes the problem or requirement – preparing it requires experience and understanding. Fact gathering is not (indeed, almost never) enough. Requirements capture is a seriously undervalued skill.
  • Competence development in procurement is essential, both for customers and vendors.
  • Open Source Software is now 'best of breed' in many areas and its use should be positively encouraged.