in government, Ireland

IT expenditure and failure – submission to public expenditure consultation

Re: Government Expenditure Review

Dear Minister,

I’m writing someone who has worked in various ways with government over the last several years, in particular in relation to technological projects. Principally these were:

  • postcodes (through my role with NSAI/ICTSCC)
  • various transport IT projects, including the integrated ticketing system, ‘real time passenger information’, and the ‘travel planner’.

Without exception the outcome from these projects has been disastrous. The problems were perfectly forseeable. My conclusion is that our whole procurement system is broken and this is actually damaging our country. This is not just about spending too much, it’s also about total failure to deliver.

Take a look at projects like PPARS (in the HSE) and PULSE (in the Garda). I am not knocking these projects. They are good projects conceptually and they need to be done. But have a look at the price tag and you have to cringe: outside of government, these things don’t cost that much and they work much better.

When we at NSAI/ICTSCC/SC4, a group of experts in the IT and coding area – wanted to help the government develop a cost-effective, sensible postcode we were quickly told not to bother – that we weren’t even eligible to apply to work on the project. If we were to have a chance at even working on the project, we’d have to line up with a massive international outsourcing firm. There were not even any Irish firms which could meet the requirements to be allowed tender.

This project is becoming more urgent than ever with the advent of the property tax. Without a proper system to identify all the houses in the country, it will be very difficult to collect this fairly. This project was commenced eight years ago. But it has delivered absolutely nothing to date.

Another instance – the recent tender for a ‘journey planner’ for the NTA -. A massive tender document has been sent out to prospective bidders, but there has been little thought about the practical reality of implementing what has been proposed. There will inevitably be massive budget overruns as the difficulties of implementation arise and there will also be underdelivery. Everything will be massively delayed. But the local innovators who could deliver the same system quickly, cheaply and effectively have been completely excluded from the project.

But as that gap grows, without technology that the people outside the government take for granted, government itself will become the equivalent of an infant in a world of mature adults.

The status quo isn’t just making things expensive and slow, it’s asphyxiating the government’s ability to serve.

So that is what I am asking you to is to fix the way IT and related procurement is done. We have to find a better way. We have to work smarter and get much better value for money.

There is also good practice to be found in the public service. It is important to learn from this. Revenue has succeeded in deploying workable online systems for paying tax and making returns. The Motor tax website provides a money-saving alternative to the countrywide network of road tax offices which require hundreds of staff. These projects are not perfect, but at least they are making progress.

Somewhere in the middle are projects like the Integrated Ticketing System. The ITS project is much-maligned, and it is a project which faces serious problems in relation to its objectives and governance.However, the professional team has made reasonable efforts to regulate and control the project and bring it in for less than the original 2001 budget, albeit almost a decade late. They have made some bold and I think correct decisions along the way.)

The concrete suggestions I would propose to move forward would be:

  • – to put together an IT council, consisting of experts from IT firms in Ireland and the likes of Eoghan Nolan of Google would be helpful and willing in this type of development.
  • – to appoint a CIO, or CTO in the government, reporting to the Taoiseach.
  • – to develop links with the IT community in all parts of government, to facilitate cheaper, better recruitment in future.
  • – to share information. There is too much siloing and hoarding of data in the public service. If this data were made available more widely it could have all sorts of unanticipated benefits. The resistance to this at the moment relates to data protection issues. However, I think this is more than a smokescreen than the reality. Most government information is not personal in nature. The real issue relates to maintaining power and control. This has to be dealt with through the IT council.

I wish you well with your efforts.

Best regards,

Antoin O Lachtnain

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  1. If you agree with the sentiments above, or if you have your own views, or even if you disagree with me completely, please do email in to brendan Howlin’s ‘comprehensive expenditure review’ consultation, and let him know what you think.

  2. If I interpret this post correctly, what you are saying is that government is highly motivated to avoid project failure, and therefore tends to select well-established names in the industry who often have good contacts in government already.

    But this manifestly has not delivered uniformly successful projects, so perhaps changing the tolerable risk profile will a) improve outcomes and b) be less costly. Agreed.

  3. Not quite. The priority of the people who actually run these projects is not project success. Their priority is to avoid personal failure. The safest way to avoid being on the hook if things go wrong is to bring in a well-known name and then delay or suppress any warning signs for as long as possible.

    The international outfits are fine companies with some good people. However if the project isn’t specced and managed right by a client who understands what they are about, it just will not work, no matter how good your contractor is.

  4. To sort out sharing, in the main, Government IT infrastructure projects should be build from and in the commons.

    I see three real benefits:
    A really successful solution will get mass adoption, across departments and across governments that will dissipate the costs.

    With a failure the commons will re-purpose and reuse the good parts of a solution.

    There is an objective measure of success in the level of adoption and community participation.

    In addition, if the IT problem is not common across departments or government in other EU countries, some alarm bells should sound. Then someone needs to provide a really good answer to the question: Why are we doing it this way?