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There have been many recent events on the means of improving public sector project success rates but we have known the causes of failure and the pre-conditions for success for over thirty years. And still we make the same old boring mistakes.
The webcast of a recent seminar held in the Attlee Suite of the House of Commons on “Govt 2.0 or Truly Transformative Government” contains a lively recapitulation of what we have known for decades, leading in to some spectalure examples of we could be doing to make much better use of the technologies available today.
That first session, on improving success rates contained gems such as “Don’t reinvent the wheel: steal with pride”.
However, when the speakers moved on to the real causes of failure, (incoherent planning and people processes), some of the comments became rather more bitter:
“Mechanised compassion means discrimination, service denial, frustration and loss of dignity”,
“User centred like a laser guided bomb in Faluja”
There were also sharp comments on the spectacular waste of resources when technology sledge-hammers are used to address requirement nuts – “This is best viewed as a £50,000 project with a £100 million of consultancy on top”.
I was reminded of the multi-million pound Y2K “market transition” project that was ditched in favour of switching the dealing system off (the markets would be closed anyway) and allowing those who might have to do out of hours trading (always rare on New Years Eve) to do so manually. Such decisions could never happen in the public sector – or at least they could never happen after the Minister had announced the system and defended it in the House of Commons.
The seminar also heard one very interesting answer to the question of why we never learn. Failure by the rules is commonly well rewarded (promotion, cost-plus over runs, consultancy etc.). But the punishments for breaking the rules can be savage, however successful the results.
I also found it very helpful in refining my thinking for an article that I have been asked to write for a civil service audience on “Why do we never learn?”. The article is based on an update of a presentation that I did for a similar audience just over five years ago and I have found it most interesting to see what has changed since then – and what has not.
The rich rewards for failure and the penalties for success are indeed a prime, and long standing, cause – but are they a cause or a symptom?
I will blog again on this when the article is finished and published.