When IT Meets Politics

Sep 14 2007   2:10PM GMT

The silent majority gets what it deserves, ignored

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo

Tags:
Professionalism
Public sector
Successful Delivery

In the early 1980s the UK IT industry punched well above its weight politically. IT was seen as “the metatechnology of the new age” and major computer users, not just suppliers, were politically active on issues of concern. Today society is critically dependent on ICT but IT punches well below its weight politically. Why?


In 1982 The Prime Minister spoke to 1400 delegates from all walks of life at the closing conference of IT Year and 120 MPs attended a PITCOM exhibition on Computers in Schools, manned by relays of children. Today most politicians take IT for granted, except when it goes wrong.

But why does IT so often go wrong in the public sector. In June Computer Weekly published an article in which I said it was because no-one was responsible for ensuring that it succeeded. Those who launched projects had commonly gone before the procurement was started, let alone the implementation.

So why do Ministers have such unrealistic expectations. Who is to blame!

We are.

All of us who claim to be Information Systems Professionals but fail to tell our users about the pre-conditions for success, lest they fail to go ahead with the project or place the order.

We hear much about the need to follow systems engineering disciplines. But I entered the industry before there were computer science courses and when civil engineers were still taught that their’s was a black art, not a science. Success was the ability to address your retirement party and boast that fewer of the erections for which you had been responsible had come down than the rest of your classmates: despite the ground surveys being wrong, the contractors fiddling the materials and the construction and maintenance being skimped. And yet you had not padded the design and specifications by such that your employer did not get the business and, most importantly, he had made sufficient margin to invite you back again.

In my early training as a systems analyst I was told that my task was to come in a little bit early and little bit under budget and that the only way to do this was work closely with the user, so as to find out what they really wanted and to manage their expectations as to what they could achieve with the budget they had in mind and the people available on both sides.

Today our industry has grown and fragmented. It appears normal to give a major project to some-one who has never managed even a small project from inception to live running

In 1973 Computer Weekly published my business school MSc thesis on “Why Computer Systems Fail”. The reasons are still the same. The recent National Audit Office report on The Successfull Delivery of IT Enabled Change summarises them yet again. But why do we never learn?

Because too many of those in the IT industry believe that “professionalism” is doing what customers asks for, rather than what they need.

When I was Vice-Chairman of the Professional Board of the British Computer Society I used a series of case studies to introduce discussions on “practical ethics” – how to blow the whistle and still remain employable. I plan to return to this topic but my core message is that the only safe time to blow the whistle on a major project is before your boss has committed himself (women are more cautious) to an opinion. Hence those lengthy Japanese meetings with the juniors speaking first.

In political terms that means getting involved with Think Tanks and Policy Studies so that you help set the agenda and ensure that the policy proposal is practical. Then you hang on during implementation, over each change of official, to ensure that they understand what the objective was as well as what has changed.

Hence the reason I have spent the past thirty years trying to get IT professionals to be active in the political party of their choice as well as working on agenda setting exercises on an all-party basis via EURIM

In future entries I plan to look the routes you can use to make your voice heard. I will also look at some of the consultations which would greatly benefit from an input of user views.

I should add that my definition of “user” includes the account managers and support staff of the service suppliers who have to deliver results after the sales team have moved on. I have many friends who have been great salesmen – but the best of them worked closely with those who would subsequently have to deliver. That way they sold even more on the back of success.

Some of you will say “but that is not how the public procurement system now works” .

I will say, “all the more reason why you should help change it back.”

Another of my later themes will be how the Transformational Government programme and allied change programmes give a unique opportunity to do this – and why and how you should help.

There is much to write about and I am conscious that in this, my first entry, I have already broken the “rules” of blogging. How strange that such a new phenomenon should already have acquired such rigid conventions. Ca va.

1  Comment on this Post

 
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  • Dave Wright
    A great title and an insightful article, forthright and uncompromising, with a revealing analysis and clear solution.

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