Comment: Will we even know if we're getting it right?
Big ICT has a new benchmark for failure. As a straightforward technical breakdown, the fiasco at RBS is in a class of its own. In the supposedly rich history of public sector ICT disasters, it is hard to recall such a large organisation's mission-critical system going out of action for so long.
However knowing what failure looks like does not help us much when it comes to recognising success. The lack of a coherent picture was one of the more critical points to emerge from the Institute for Government's (IfG) generally upbeat assessment of the government's IT strategy, System Update, published this week.
Of course the government's own announcements leave little doubt that things are moving in the right direction. Its "One Year On" report on the government ICT strategy includes an impressive list of institutions created, strategies published and contracts placed. Outputs, however, are harder to pin down.
The IfG warns that the government "still lacks the information it needs to judge whether use of ICT across government is improving". It stresses the need to publish reliable and comparable data on the cost-effectiveness of ICT in different government departments.
A vision of success is crucial to solving the biggest worry about the strategy - the lack of buy-in by civil service leaders outside the ICT community. This is most evident in the low take-up of "agile" techniques, which the IfG and the Cabinet Office agree is the way ahead. Despite this commitment, the IfG found that "the bulk of ICT projects appear still to be run in traditional ways". It warns that "Despite some progress, the government's target of having 50% of projects using agile techniques by April 2013 will be extremely difficult to achieve if this continues, the review says."
The trouble is that embracing agile requires a change in mind-set far beyond the CIO community and it's a lot easier to achieve this for stand-alone projects like e-petitions than for the development of massive mission-critical transaction systems. Because being agile means being prepared to fail, tweak, and then try again. At the moment, there's not much tolerance for failure: ask a few bankers.