Another government IT setback!

When governments want to save money, they generally start using fancy business-sounding rhetoric to give the impression that no capability will be lost and savings will be achieved almost entirely with efficiencies. Governments rarely say they will simply start doing less, more’s the pity. This is rooted, I would guess, in the post-war socialist settlement that planted so firmly in people’s minds the belief that a problem can only ever really be solved by an increase in government activity, and certainly not by a decrease.

The result tends to be over-ambition in government: promises of more and more even when resources are constrained, as they are today. And when over-ambition meets information technology projects, the result is usually pretty ugly. There was that NHS IT project which has reportedly cost up to £10 billion so far; and the new Universal Credit IT project to bring together all benefits in one efficient system is under pressure as I write. And now the Recruitment Partnering Project seems to be suffering difficulties. Though thankfully we are not talking billions.

The project is designed to bring Army recruiting online, thus enabling financial savings of up to £300 million. Capita, the outsourcing company, have won the main contract, but the online recruiting system is being built by the Atlas Consortium, and it is they who are having difficulties. To add to the complication, it is holding up Army recruitment at a time when the Regular force is reducing to some 82,000 and the Reserves increasing by some 10,000 as part of Army 2020 restructuring. I’ve voiced concerns hereherehere and here, and it looks like they have another headache.

Gartner, an IT research company, has looked into the problem and noticed the following: the project is two years behind schedule; £15.5 million has already been spent, which might have to be written off; they might have to spend another £50 million on a replacement system; recruitment applications have been lost and targets missed, and Major General Shaun Burley, head of British Army personnel management, has warned there might be 10,000 unfilled posts by the middle of 2015; and the wrong bidder was picked, despite warnings that existing Defence Information Infrastructure (DII) providers, Atlas Consortium, might not meet the agreed timeline.

The main culprit, however, is said to be the Army Recruitment and Training Division, for failing to provide the online system Capita needs to run Army recruiting. They offered to develop a hosting platform but were not taken up on the offer, partly because their quote was £15 million higher than the Atlas bid, and also because there seems to be an MOD policy to use DII, and thus Atlas, for IT projects unless a good case can be made to look elsewhere.

Specific problems there may be, but it looks like they fit into two broad categories: a) governments rushing projects, especially if financial savings are involved; and b) MOD, and thus government, not being that great at IT project management. Perhaps Gartner’s most damning observation is this: the Army ‘underestimated the complexity of what it was trying to achieve.’

This is not to argue that the state and the Army cannot run projects at all; clearly they can. But it is worth asking if they are running the sort of projects appropriate to their training and skills. If we think of contract negotiations between the private sector and the government as a tennis match, then there is only going to be one winner. Inspection of the national budget should tell us all we need to know.

Gartner also noticed that the military project management team was inexperienced and under-resourced. In this case, it seems that the government’s desire to reduce the Regular Army led to members of the team being either moved or made redundant. New personnel had to come in and they obviously lacked the sort of continuity and deep knowledge required to make such projects work. Besides, the military tendency to move people every two years hardly lends itself to the management of projects which tend to last at least twice that time. It might be that Civil Servant project managers, either permanent or recruited for whole projects, would make better sense; and where military input is required, they can be attached to the project as military advisors, concentrating on what they know.

Money slips through government fingers like water through a sieve, so we should perhaps not be surprises or even that worried by Gartner’s findings. But the purpose of the overall project is to improve Army recruiting and enable the Regulars, reduced to a mere 82,000 personnel, to be at full strength to provide the backbone of any future military campaign. If this goes unchecked, and General Burley’s warning comes true, then Army 2020 is even more of a risk than I thought. Let’s hope there’s time to sort it out, because if there isn’t then it will be soldiers yet gain suffering the consequences.

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