By Bill Goodwin
Weak management and a lack of openness were key factors behind the failure of a £17 million flagship information-technology project by the government's housing agency. This is the conclusion of a previously confidential report by consultants released by the housing corporation after a 17-month battle under the freedom of information act (FOIA).
A string of management blunders by government officials led to the project, which was beset by technical problems, failing to meet either its deadlines or budget. The report says that the project’s failure left staff demoralised, and damaged the organisation’s reputation.
It also reveals that documents dating from early in the project appear to have gone missing.
The project was commissioned in 1999 as part of a programme to update the corporation’s ageing IT systems, and to provide housing associations with direct electronic access to them.
The corporation, which provides funding to housing associations, initially refused to release the report, but backed down following a complaint to the information commissioner, who regulates FOIA.
In 2005, the corporation asked Methods Consult-ing to compile a report on the failed IT project, providing access to its staff and project documents during the firm’s 10-month investigation.
The 60-page Methods Consulting report suggests, however, that some significant documentation had gone missing. Some documents mentioned by current and former corporation staff during formal interviews by the consultants “could not be located in the electronic or paper records.”
The report says: “There were also allegations that some paper records were destroyed early in 2004 for unknown reasons.”
The missing records included board IT group minutes between 1997 and 2000, the report reveals.
On the project itself, the report says that the corporation allowed poor relations between managers and the IT department to create “a mutually distrustful environment”. This left managers with little control.
Disgruntled staff leaked documents on the project to the press, prompting the corporation to hire private detectives in an unsuccessful attempt to identify the employees responsible.
Although the procurement followed a well thought-through procedure, the corporation failed to consult its legal advisors in the early stages of the contract for the project and the procurement team missed key warning signs during the procurement process. As a result, the corporation awarded the contract to an inexperienced supplier, Elonex, now in liquidation.
And although the corporation's external advisor, KPMG, endorsed its choice of IT technology for the project, managers wrongly presented this as an endorsement of the IT strategy.
User needs were not properly defined, and man-agement resources were overstretched. During the project, decisions went unrecorded, and minutes of meetings were poor.
The project team lacked managers with strategic IT understanding, skills in procurement and contract management. The investigation found that man-agers relied too heavily on technical advice from a single freelance IT consultant, despite warnings that this posed a risk.
“Important detail was frequently overlooked and decision-makers were often presented with sub-stantial document and little time to review it. Strategic procurement mistakes were made at strategy, final award and implementation stages,” the report says.
“There was no systematic assessment of risks, no evidence of implementation or resource planning, and unrealistic expectations were raised of an early timetable for implementation.”
The project faced repeated technical difficulties, with pilots suffering from service failures and poor performance. But neither the corporation nor its then supplier, Elonex, appeared to have understood the technology sufficiently to solve the problems, says the report.
The corporation ended its deal with Elonex in Dec-ember 2005, on the grounds of material breach of contract, the report reveals.
The report says that the corporation has taken steps to turn around its IT strategy.
The corporation’s IT director, Peter Marsh, said in a statement: “We fully accept the report’s findings and its recommendations. The purpose of the review was to find out what went wrong and to identify lessons for the future.”
Another version of this article first appeared in Computer Weekly.
FOIA Centre commentary
We have seen, once again, how FOIA can root out reports that government agencies would rather keep secret. But, once again, it has proved a lengthy battle.
In this case, the housing corporation reluctantly released an embarrassing report on a failed IT project nearly a year after a complaint was lodged with the information commissioner – a year and five months after the initial FOIA request. Once again, the FOIA regulator has proved far too slow at regulating FOIA.
Indeed, we might still be waiting for the information commissioner’s conclusion had the corporation not decided to release the report after all.
And we believe that this decision was influenced by Bill Goodwin’s previous revelations – based on confidential memos not, of course, disclosed under FOIA – on how corporation officials had planned a secret strategy to frustrate any request for the report. The leaked documents showed that, while the corporation recognised that a public body must work from the presumption of disclosing material requested under FOIA, it did the exact opposite.
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