back to article UK govt signs IT contracts 'without understanding' the needs

The UK government can be prone to signing contracts for major IT projects before it has a good understanding of the requirements, according to a National Audit Office (NAO) director. Speaking at a Whitehall event examining priorities for the Central Digital and Data Office, the Cabinet Office's central technology team formed a …

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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    No shit, Sherlock?!

    This has been evident for many years, at all levels of government - I witnessed one particularly egregrious f***-up in local government about 30 years ago. Wont listen or take advice from underlings that know what theyre about, try to insist that shit is pure gold, and then waltz off with a huge pay-off to mess up some other organisation.

    1. Spanners Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: No shit, Sherlock?!

      You seem to be describing the Seagull Management System.

      Fly in through the window, flap around and cause problems.

      After a short while, head back through the window leaving a mess, sh1t and other problems behind you.

      I am wondering if the events in Ukraine are Vlad the Invader seeking to leave such a legacy.

    2. Jonathan Richards 1

      Re: No shit, Sherlock?!

      It matches many of my experiences in Defence, as well.

      There are two points that I'd make: first of all that management consultants and IT/IS vendors cultivate the "non-digital leader" (hereinafter PHB) because it is to some extent there that the fulcrum of their marketing leverage rests. It's then hard for the PHB to listen to their own staff contradicting some of those smooth marketing messages, because (a) the contradictions aren't dressed up in marketing jargon, and (b) they don't come with lunch and a really nice Chablis.

      Secondly, there is the fact that fuzzy requirements are somewhat to the contractors advantage. Post-contract changes are pretty lucrative, but the relationship of Profit to Requirement Definition is not linear. A few changes will yield some nice income, and a manageable time overrun. Get in on a contract where the customer can't tell A from the track of a duck, though, and then both parties are in the shit.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: No shit, Sherlock?!

        Also, the management consultant is reassuringly expensive and the local advice is somebody who's on a salary less then the PHB. Advice must be worth what you pay for it, otherwise why pay so much.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: No shit, Sherlock?!

      I'm not sure even doubling the pay would help. Tripling is quite literally the start point, looking at the current pay scales.

    4. dinsdale54

      Re: No shit, Sherlock?!

      Agree with the NSS.

      If you don't have the skills to implement it, you probably don't have the skills to write the spec either. The devil is in the details.

      1. jdiebdhidbsusbvwbsidnsoskebid

        Re: No shit, Sherlock?!

        "If you don't have the skills to implement it, you probably don't have the skills to write the spec either"

        I disagree, you can be skilled enough to understand the requirements and write the spec, without being skilled enough to implement it. You need however to be skilled enough then to engage with the specialists and refine that spec, understanding what's possible etc.

        1. Jonathan Richards 1

          Re: No shit, Sherlock?!

          +1.

          The requirements should also be drafted alongside the test specs. For that, the IT bods are no good at all, you absolutely *need* the end users involved; only they will know how you tell that the deliverables are or are not working correctly.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: No shit, Sherlock?!

            I had the misfortune to work with a software project that resulted from an SSADM study carried out on an existing system with a view to upgrading the hardware/software.

            The SSADM specialists were not allowed, by the customer, to talk to the people actually using the existing system.

            The tender for the new software generated from the study was let with no requirements review by anyone who knew how the tasks were actually carried out or what weird temporary fixes had been applied to the original system to make it work.

            Needless to say the new software really wasn't fit for purpose - PHBs were wailing and gnashing their teeth, even though it was their policy that caused the issue in the first place.

            It was sorted, eventually, at the cost of time (three years) and effeciency (many things that should have been done were delayed until the new software came on line).

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Holmes

      Re: No shit, Sherlock?! - Expanded

      It's not just government.

      I've worked in and for US government agencies, state governments, and private industries.

      Clueless management and poor requirements arr endemic to all.

      1. John Robson Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: No shit, Sherlock?! - Expanded

        "Clueless management and poor requirements arr endemic to all."

        Is that a hint? Are pirates well managed?

  2. wolfetone Silver badge

    "The UK government can be prone to signing contracts for major IT projects before it has a good understanding of the requirements, according to a National Audit Office (NAO) director."

    Can't wait for the next article about water continuing to be wet, although I would argue that it's not just IT projects that get signed off without understanding what it's about. Literally every other aspect of government that requires a signature to unleash funds is done without understanding what is needed. It happens in Health (especially), Education etc.

    But do you know what part of the whole system that gets signed off with 100% clarity, foresight and understanding? Aspects relating to wages, expenses, and how to get a peerage.

    1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

      Can't wait for the next article about water continuing to be wet

      Followed by ones explaining the Pope's support for the Nicene Creed and ursine preferences for arboreal sanitary facilities.

  3. macjules

    Ui/UX?

    Surely they must have people who have done user experience before committing to billion pound budgets? This is at the very heart of any digital planning.

    1. batfink Silver badge

      Re: Ui/UX?

      Don't be silly man. That would infer some competence.

      1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

        Re: Ui/UX?

        That would infer some competence.

        Sir Humphrey says: I have an Oxon First, I don't need competence.

    2. jdiebdhidbsusbvwbsidnsoskebid

      Re: Ui/UX?

      If you're responsible for billions of pounds, there's every chance that your user experience is now out of date.

  4. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    ""We found in large scale programmes that, before things start for real, [there is] insufficient thinking, analysis, architecture and design. Often this is actually skipped over,"

    But why expect governments to do IT differently to the way they do everything else?

    It might be argued that when governments have to face unexpected events - pandemics, wars or the like they have to make decisions on the fly. But even in those cases the decisions would be easier and more effective if there had been some preparation made to deal with such events.

    1. batfink Silver badge

      There's also the electoral cycle. By the time the shit hits the fan, it's possible that the original perpetrators will be gone anyway, so it'll be somebody else's problem.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Think of "Yes Minister". The ministers may change but the back office civil servants will always be there no matter what.

        1. batfink Silver badge

          Yes, but they're generally trying to implement the latest Minister's Really Brilliant Idea....

          1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

            No, they're usually trying to get the Minister to implement their long held plans. See: Home Office and Identity Cards.

            1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

              Quite. There's a headline on BBC News saying the Home Office needs to get a grip. There's only one ting they've had a grip on for years and that's successive Home Secs. And much good has it done either.

        2. WanderingHaggis

          Indeed there but not listened too but expected to clean up the mess and carry the can for the minister.

    2. TRT Silver badge

      I was just going to say that I find it in some small way comforting that Government is representative of "The People".

      1. Ken G Silver badge
    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      All that detailed design up front? Sound like a waterfall project, and we all know how successful they are.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Really?

        Many waterfall projects have succeeded; many agile projects have failed.

        Oddly, it doesn't seem to be down to the methodology so much as the overall management. And if you don't know what your overall design and requirements are going to be (even if you don't have the fine detail), you are asking for trouble.

  5. Headley_Grange Silver badge

    Reality

    The problem is that if a proper set of requirements and specs, from concept through to support, are done then the estimated costs will be too high and the projects won't get started. I suspect that there are some bright people in the civil service whose main job is to get enough of the project started to make it self sustaining without breaking the current administration's 5-year budget.

    I've managed a couple of MoD development projects. They had a full set of requirement specs, but at the preliminary design reviews it was apparent that that the MoD had left some areas of their requirements either undefined, vague or disguised. Their assumption was that once we were on the hook (fixed price) then their commercial people were better than our commercial people and they'd get the extra stuff for free and not have to ask for more money from the chancellor. It didn't work out well - for either of us.

    1. steamnut

      Do they ever learn?

      I was just two days into an MOD contract and opened the "XXXXXX Specification Document". There were lots of pages marked "this page intentionally left blank" and paragraph sections with TBA in them.

      It was reminiscent of the Blackadder scene where they are planning to go around the world. Melchett says: "“Blackadder, here’s a map of the known world (hands over blank parchment)… fill it in as you go along”"

      On my project I was given a fairly complete section to code and told not to worry about the rest for now. At every point where an API call was required I made something up and updated the specification document. It was coding by the serendipity method.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Do they ever learn?

        “Blackadder, here’s a map of the known world (hands over blank parchment)… fill it in as you go along”

        This extends all the way down to small software houses. Having just arrived in one I was given the job of looking after a system they'd put together for one client which they were now trying to sell to a few more. For two of the customers it was something new, for the third they'd been told it would drop in in place of what they already had. I already had problems such as trying to pick it apart and reassemble it in such a way that users in one part of the business didn't have access to every other users' part of the database. I quickly found out I had another: that it was in no way going to be a drop in replacement - the data model was too different.

        So I asked management what the spec was for what I was to produce. I was told that whatever I produced would be the spec.

        Fortunately, shortly after as I was leaving Embankment station I bumped into someone from my previous employer's customer and more or less offered a job there and then (the ensuing interview was one question "Are you still interested?").

    2. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Reality

      "I suspect that there are some bright people in the civil service" Not so much - one thing the external contractors are good at is spotting people who know what they are talking about and lifting them out of the way one way or another. You'd be surprised the number of people who had a great salary for a couple of years before being in-outsourced.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      A Different Reality.........Much More Cynical......

      @Headley_Grange

      Quote 1: "...a good understanding of the requirements..."

      Quote 2: "...the detail of requirements and complexity start to emerge over time as the programme gets underway..."

      Once upon a time, a long time ago (in the 1980's), I worked for a big consulting firm. This firm REFUSED to bid for huge design-to-implementation projects.

      The firm won a lot of work by suggesting that the work should be split into two contracts:

      (1) A short (i.e. low cost) contract to do the analysis and write the requirements

      (2) A second contract to do the design and implementation

      In fact, this firm sometimes won contract #1, but even when they did win contract #1, they didn't always win contract #2.

      ......but at least there was an opportunity to ASSESS the quality of the requirements written at the end of #1!!!

      This article seems to imply that thirtysome years later, an obvious lesson has not been learned!!

      Why am I not surprised? Huge contracts, billions of pounds (sterling), no opportunity to change course (until 100s of millions have disappeared).....

      .....and, of course, plenty of time for politicians and civil servants to retire.....to cushy directorships.....with consultancies!!!!!!!!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: A Different Reality.........Much More Cynical......

        I have worked for a defence contractor that has also worked on several projects like this.

        Step 1: Bid to prove the company is capable of requirements analysis for a given project title. Money given to perform requirements analysis and provide an initial overview of key concepts of the solution.

        Step 2: Customer selects 'x' number of companies to perform analysis and manages questions. For example: if one of the bidders asks a question regarding the requirement analysis, the answer gets shared to all others performing the analysis (all done anonymously, so no-one knows who else is performing the analysis).

        Step 3: Bid to prove your analysis and provide an initial overview of concepts. At this stage everyone now has a clearer view of the requirements, and the customer has not only an initial concept to review, but can also understand who understands the issues better, how quickly things move in the company and how everyone has worked to come up with a solution.

        It takes more money and time upfront, but at least its more likely issues are ironed out early.

      2. Headley_Grange Silver badge

        Re: A Different Reality.........Much More Cynical......

        Splitting the requirements phase from the implementation phase is a good approach but the risk is that the client takes the requirements output from the first phase and treats it as a shopping list from which they pick stuff until they hit their budget limits. Unless the requirements phase was run on the basis of it being a shopping list then the client will probably get a half-arsed implementation that ends up costing at least as much as doing it "properly" would have done and whoever did the requirements will be blamed for all the problems.

  6. trevorde Silver badge

    Only one person can save us

    Dido Harding!

    1. TRT Silver badge

      Re: Only one person can save us

      Dido Harding is in the library. Dido Harding has been saved.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Only one person can save us

      I'm sure Dildo Hardening is a character in some dodgy movie

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Only one person can save us

      Where's Amber #hashtags Rudd, when we need her?

      And no, I'm not sneering. Real people use encryption, because they aren't bloody stupid, especially in times of war.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Only one person can save us

        Check her wonkypedia page. She's now a security consultant. Either that or an editor with a sense of humour has been at work on it.

    4. ICL1900-G3 Bronze badge

      Re: Only one person can save us

      I reckon the Rev Paula Vennells would be a useful pair of hands, too.

  7. Pascal Monett Silver badge
    Trollface

    "signing contracts [..] before it has a good understanding of the requirements"

    I am shocked. Shocked, I tell you.

    1. TRT Silver badge

      Re: "signing contracts [..] before it has a good understanding of the requirements"

      It's almost as if the objective was to sign the contract and transfer the money, rather than the objective being whatever the IT project was about.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: "signing contracts [..] before it has a good understanding of the requirements"

        This is more or less Sir Humphrey's explanation. The public is assured by the fact that the government is spending large sums of money on something. As I recall it applied to both Trident and the NHS.

        1. TRT Silver badge

          Re: "signing contracts [..] before it has a good understanding of the requirements"

          Oh well... if it's expensive then it must be good. Very reassuring.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Yeah, we know ...

    Way, way back in time the then Inland Revenue delivered CESA, the last major IT project entirely designed, developed and delivered under Civil Service control. It was on time, under budget, and delivered every function point working at go-live. The IT function was then privatised and the issues described became very apparent. All the IT knowledge had been packed off to the private sector and the contracts under which projects were developed were specified such that the companies delivering could bleed the government dry.

  9. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Cretins’r’Us ..... Tar All with Collateral Dishonour.

    Such serial incompetence in government though appears all to easily thought well worthy of a knighthood, with glaring evidence of such an abomination most recently demonstrated in the positing of Gavin Williamson for ...... well, now surely is surely rendered a thoroughly dubious honour.

    I wonder if Gavin was threatening to walk and talk about all that he gleaned while in high Office. Spill the dope on shenanigans uncovered ..... "Give us a Knighthood or the dogs on Fleet Street get it!” .... etc etc.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Doesn't matter anyway...

    Since Michael Keegan (Husband to Gillian MP and cabinet minister), who was Fujitsu CEO from 2015-2019, also know as the cover up years of the Horizon Post Office Scandal, and in 2018 a Non Executive Director for Centerprise International who based in Basingstoke (as Fujitsu are) who supply Fujitsu the computers they use on their Government projects, has joined the cabinet office (as he did in 2019) as 'Crown Representative.

    His main role as Crown Representative is where he oversees the Government’s relationships with suppliers, basically helps award contracts to "industry partners".

    Can you guess who has been winning a lot of Government projects since 2019? Despite Horizon being exposed as an awful piece of shite, spoiler, they get their computers from Centerprise International.

    So just assume all these projects will go to them.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Doesn't matter anyway...

      Bracknell, dear heart, not Basingstoke.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Doesn't matter anyway...

        Close enough.

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