Books: Sorry lifecycle of a government project

An ex-consultant lambasts New Labour for incompetence and waste in IT schemes. Andrew Wileman admires his disgust.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Plundering the Public Sector David Craig with Richard Brooks Constable & Robinson £9.99 To order, visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk

The UK government is currently managing the largest non-military IT project in history, the computerisation of the NHS. Contracts worth £6.5 billion have been awarded to the usual consultancy suspects (Accenture and others). Total consulting and project costs will never be truly counted, but could be £40 billion.

Do you trust the consultants to do a good job for those billions? Do you trust the Government to manage the project well? As a clue, here are other public IT projects: the CSA, the e-VAT system, the Tax Credit system, and the Criminal Records Bureau. Here's another clue, an early result for NHS IT: by 2004 the 'Choose-and-Book' system for hospital appointments had cost £200 million and handled 63 appointments - that's £3 million per appointment.

David Craig is the nom-de-plume of Neil Glass, who used to be a consultant with Capgemini. Craig has turned against his alma mater industry with a vengeance. His previous book, Rip Off, was an anti-consultant rabble-rouser, spilling the beans on consulting incompetence, over-selling and fat expense claims. Here, he blasts away at UK public-sector consulting.

In 1997, New Labour attacked the last Tory government for spending £500 million a year on management consultants. They now spend four times that.

Craig thinks this is an outrage. The numbers are way too large; the results are a disgrace. Spin-driven New Labour is a sucker for macho mission-speak and process overkill, for big ideas and no execution.

The taxpayer is being screwed.

He has a long list of outrageous wastes and bad advice, of conflicts of interest and pigs at troughs. He reminds us of the London Underground PPP, which generated £455 million in advisory fees; PwC recommended PPP, then was paid £21 million for helping to set it up.

This is a good topic and Craig knows his stuff. He writes with passionate disgust and with rich detail. And he has a good consultant brain - his taxonomy of reasons for IT project failure is excellent.

The book has two targets: general management consulting, and IT projects.

Craig guns for both, but they are very different animals.

IT projects are like having the builders in. The final cost will be four times the quote, it will take three times as long as they say, and the roof will leak. Few organisations are good at managing these projects.

The public sector may be particularly bad at managing IT projects, but not uniquely so.

General management consulting is a different kettle of fish. The private sector has become better at managing this kind of consulting. In the booming 1990s, consultants could sell any kind of Change Management bullshit, but it's a tougher market today, with more pressure for concrete delivery of real value at reasonable cost.

Good consulting needs a good client. A bad client gets bad consulting.

Private-equity groups that have delivered great returns to investors, like TPG, Permira or Bain Capital, and the companies they invest in, regularly use all the usual suspect consultancies. These good clients get good consulting results.

The public sector is not usually a good client. It may use the same consultancies (with exceptions), but it gets bad consulting results. It is 10 years behind the times in fad-surfing; it gets sucked into over-blown budgets and processes; it asks the wrong questions; and it gets fixated on the idee du jour. It is risk-averse, and spends much time and money on arse-covering. It uses consultants to advance political headlines and post-justify policy decisions, rather than to deliver cost-efficient action programmes.

Craig blames the consultants too. But telling consultants to stop feeding off the easy pickings of bad clients is like telling the scorpion not to sting the frog carrying him over the river: he can't help it.

Under Blair, the public sector is probably an even worse client: the civil service has been bypassed, big projects are sponsored directly by politicians or their pet advisers. Hypnotised by can-do consulting-speak, these sponsors are even more removed from professional management than civil servants.

Craig sees a sorry inevitability in the lifecycle of big government projects: a fanfare of ambition, pride, sudden silence and secrecy, blame, and a move on to the Next Big Thing. If I were in power, I'd hire Craig as a consultant - he sounds like he'd do good work.

- Andrew Wileman is a business consultant and writer.

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