A joint effort

Although we often read about “failed” government IT projects in the press, the reality is that technology plays a crucial role in improving the delivery of public services. There are many examples of where the application of technology has made a real difference in service delivery. It is all too easy for government and the industry to blame each other when things start to go wrong; they should instead regard each other as true partners serving the same ultimate aim – improving the way government works and delivers services.
The success of future efforts to improve the landscape around the Transformational Government agenda depends both on how the government behaves and how the industry behaves. Mutual engagement, understanding of the shared goals of service transformation, and a drive towards thorough and reliable professionalism in both the public and private sectors are all crucial steps on the journey towards improved technology-enabled public services.
The role of the Senior Responsible Owner (SRO), and the relationship between SROs and Senior Responsible Industry Executives (SRIEs), are major contributors to the success of a project. Indeed, the technology industry believes that the most important change required to significantly improve the delivery of benefits from UK government investments in major IT Transformational Programmes is the early and effective engagement of a competent SRO. However, according to the NAO report “Delivering successful IT-enabled business change”, around one third of all government projects fail to realise benefits set out in the business case because of inexperienced, ineffective or unsupported SROs.

Background to the roles
The SRO role was outlined in the Cabinet Office’s Successful IT: Modernising Government in Action report (The McCartney Report) in 2000. The SRO was intended to be a leader bringing clear strategic direction to the project or programme and focusing on ensuring the programme director was able to deliver the intended business benefits.
The SRO/SRIE Best Practice Guidelines were launched as a joint industry-government initiative shortly after that. This made clear the distinction between the SRO and the programme director who will be highly skilled and familiar with all the necessary regulations and practices.
Major public sector IT programmes are of such scale, complexity and impact that they sometimes run into difficulties. It is during these difficult periods where the SRO can help create a new and acceptable plan that will guide the programme away from trouble.
The SRIE is the industry equivalent to the government's SRO. Just as the SRO is there to bring strong leadership and direction to the customer side, the SRIE seeks to provide similar strategic direction and leadership within industry, ensuring that suppliers are aligned with the customer’s business objectives and that project resources are used accordingly.

The current picture
The relationship between SRO/SRIE is hugely important. There is a great body of evidence that suggests that the proper establishment and support of the SRO role (in particular for major IT transformational programmes), and an effective engagement with an SRIE is fundamental for the success of major projects and programmes in the public sector. Nevertheless, lack of leadership in major IT transformational programmes continues to be a significant problem, leading to difficulties and ultimately failures in such programmes.
One of the major issues in the public sector is the tendency to over-control the procurement and delivery process. Increasingly more robust and imbalanced terms and conditions, the over-reliance on procurement and legal advisers, and ever-tougher contract/procurement negotiations are all symptomatic of this tendency. The evidence clearly suggests, however, that such an approach does not necessarily deliver better projects.
Furthermore, there are a number of important external factors that affect programmes. These can include government policy changes, the re-organisation of government departments, and changes to original requirements mid-way through the project.
The SRO’s role is to provide the crucial leadership and management for the project as a whole, over and above the project or programme team. A good, close working relationship with the SRIE helps both parties to ensure the delivery of business benefits. In the case of a policy change affecting a programme, the SRO and SRIE should work together to establish what needs to be done and, where necessary, raise difficult and important issues with the relevant ministers.
A strong SRO and SRIE relationship also provides the SRO with the opportunity to openly state when a programme has become undeliverable due to complicated external factors. Although many will not admit to it, sometimes taking such a decision to cancel a programme may be the best thing to do.
Similarly, the SRO has a key role to play in developing a more rounded approach to procurement rather than leaving the procurement team to take it forward on an individual basis. This allows a more flexible application of procurement rules, with an emphasis on ensuring a successful delivery rather than simply a successful procurement.
Despite the joint efforts of the industry, and the clear potential it represents, the SRO/SRIE roles have not managed to bring about a large change in the delivery of IT-enabled business change programmes in the public sector. There are a number of underlying causes which all have contributed to the current state of affairs:

  • Lack of continuity in the SRO role throughout the lifecycle of a project – SROs are often overloaded, trying to manage a number of large and complex projects at the same time
  • Lack of recognition within government of the importance of the SRO role to successful delivery – SROs lack sufficient education in ownership of the entire procurement process, which would allow them to focus on outcomes rather than simply a ‘successful procurement’. 
  • SROs often lack the requisite skills and influence within their department to drive projects effectively.
  • SROs are sometimes appointed without due regard to their previous delivery
  • Insufficient clarity on what specifically is required from an SRO or SRIE. Guidance exists, but is not currently being implemented properly.

Improving relationships
The industry believes that an improved commitment of SROs and more effective relationships between the SRO and SRIE will help to realise benefits for both partner organisations. To that effect, the technology industry is working closely with relevant government colleagues to ensure that all major government ICT Programmes are being led by an empowered SRO adhering to the right behaviours, supported by an effective SRIE, and that SROs and SRIEs are well equipped to face the challenge.

Intellect is the trade association for the UK technology industry. It represents 800 members ranging from SMEs to large corporations.

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