I expected to dislike Conundrum.

A book written by a member of the Public Accounts Committee (Richard Bacon) and a journalist (Christopher Hope) starting with a series of case studies about some of the worst examples it has examined in recent years was surely guaranteed to be an exercise in the simplistic mandarin bashing which at times seems to be PAC’s preferred approach. But it’s a lot more subtle than that, and the last few chapters wrestle with the question of what goes wrong and why in a way which transcends easy answers of any description. Almost every time I found myself muttering ‘but what about…?’, within a page or two, and sometimes a paragraph or two, that very issue was addressed.

That does not make it a completely satisfactory book. It starts with twelve chapters which are effectively summaries of NAO value for money studies of programmes which went horribly wrong, ranging from the CSA to NHS IT via the Rural Payments Agency. There is a relentless grimness to these stories and if the point is to demonstrate that there is a problem which needs solving, it is a point made firmly over and over again. Unfortunately, while these accounts are energetically written, they style is quite long winded and repetitive: the whole book would have benefited at lot from the attention of a good copy editor. More fundamentally, while the case studies are useful as a set of reminders about what happened, there is very little about how or why. In part I suspect that reflects some of the limitations of the NAO’s methodology, but whatever the reason, the approach gets a bit wearing. So when they say firmly that

It is now simply a statement of fact to say that we now know what causes IT projects to go wrong.

at one level they are right, but at another, it focuses attention on the wrong question, as the authors recognise a few pages further on:

Technical problems usually have technical solutions but the biggest problems with major IT projects are generally not technical. They are human.

That’s why the case studies are ultimately unsatisfying: they can describe what went wrong in relentless detail, draw out common areas of weakness and in that sense give some substance to the assertion that we know why projects go wrong. It’s much harder to discern why this one and not that one, or to be clear who was making what decisions on the basis of what evidence – or absence of evidence – which led to later catastrophe. Given the reliance on NAO and PAC reports as primary sources that’s not surprising: the value for money study process doesn’t – and perhaps can’t – attempt to do that. It will be interesting to compare this approach with The Blunders of our Governments due to be published later this week, which describes itself as ‘informed by years of research and interviews with senior cabinet ministers and civil servants’ – a claim Anthony King and Ivor Crewe are well placed to make.

More subtly, there is an unspoken assumption that big change programmes are an accurate indicator of overall government effectiveness and a revealing anecdote which criticises a relentless focus on failure, but ends up reinforcing it:

Sir Leigh Lewis, who was a Permanent Secretary in Whitehall for ten years – variously in the Benefits Agency, the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions – tells of one occasion when a departmental press office persuaded him, somewhat against his better judgement, to meet a journalist and discuss a project which the department had just delivered with considerable success. The journalist listened with increasing dismay as he heard the details and finally said: ‘You mean to tell me that this project was delivered on time?’ Lewis confirmed that it was. ‘And it was delivered on budget?’ ‘Yes, indeed it was,’ said Lewis. ‘And it is working exactly as it was supposed to do?’ Once again Lewis answered in the affirmative. ‘There’s no story there,’ said the journalist and left the building.

It’s a neat story – but we end up none the wiser about what this success might have been, so can learn nothing from its merits.

I was tempted to give up after reading the first few case studies, but instead I skipped forward to the last five chapters where a serious attempt is made to understand why and to make suggestions about what needs to be different.

There is plenty of rich material to be found in this part of the book, though drawn from a relatively narrow range of sources. They look hard at what makes ministers and civil servants behave as they do and there is an encouraging recognition that politics does make it all harder and that as a result government is different for good reasons.

At the heart of all this is a basic truth that Whitehall is its own animal. It is not a private company, nor can it simply be run according to a formal, logical structure with a code of conduct on how to develop and implement policy. Its very nature means that it is both administrative and political, and there is bound to be a tension between politics and management.

But questions are raised without ever quite being answered, and here too, the writing style means it is not always clear what is being argued. I think, though, that it’s fair to extract a number of propositions:

  • Ministers cannot and should not be expected to be managers
  • Electoral and other political cycles are a fact of life
  • Policy and implementation are not separate
  • The civil service recruits for intelligence and policy skills, not for implementation and delivery
  • As a result, it is no longer able to grow its own top talent, resulting in a level of senior external recruitment which risks undermining stability and losing institutional memory
  • Civil servants behave they way they do in part because ministers behave the way they do…
  • … and vice versa
  • There are real and important differences between government and other kinds of organisations
  • Targets don’t work
  • But systems thinking might
  • Big programmes don’t work
  • But agile might

There’s a lot of good sense in that, and the discussion which leads the authors to these propositions is well worth reading. But the book stops, rather than concludes. It’s all difficult, it’s been like this for a long time, you can’t expect ministers to act differently, it should be possible for civil servants to deliver nevertheless, if they were only to change culture, approach and their relationship with ministers. On the face of it, that’s quite a weak conclusion, though perhaps a realistic one, but the authors deserve some credit for not succumbing to the temptation of giving an easy answer:

Economics has now rediscovered its earliest roots in the study of human behaviour. We urgently need a similar shift in how we seek to understand the way government and politics actually work.

What we should actually do to identify and achieve that shift and how we should set about doing it are questions left hanging. It’s a good challenge. Where might a response come from?

 

Comments

  1. Stefan, your review mirrors my own views of (and disappointment with) Bacon’s book. All too often with these things (as we saw again last week) there is a focus on what went wrong and the errors that were made, almost to the point where, because no-one is interested in successes, no-one ever looks at what makes a successful project. And as a result, there seems to be a perpetual hunt for some silver bullet, which then manifests itself as more failure, because organisations keep trying new and unproven “innovations” rather than focusing on adopting what the most superficial analysis would reveal to be the good programme management, change management and commercial practices that are required.

    The NAO did in fact write such a report in 2006 – “Delivering successful IT-enabled business change”. In this report, by reviewing a series of case studies (including some from your own department) they identified a series of questions that departments should ask themselves before they embark on IT-enabled change. One wonderful conclusion they reached still stands out in my mind: “a favourable outcome is not a matter of luck, but is the result of sound judgement”. Can we please see the end of SRO as victim?

    I’m not, by the way, arguing against all innovation. Techniques such as Agile do clearly have a huge role to play (and are proven in other sectors). But it’s vital that these things are adopted alongside and not as a substitute for good management practice.

    1. James

      Thanks – a very interesting comment. The NAO report you mention is fascinating, not least because it followed a report produced within government a few years earlier – Successful IT – which I suspect covered a lot of the same ground. And on a slightly different track, there was Jake Chapman’s powerful pamplet on System Failure which captured a lot of attention in 2002 with few discernible consequences. So the problem is not that this stuff isn’t understood, it is that despite widespread understanding of how things go wrong, they go wrong in those ways anyway.

  2. Stefan,
    I’ve not read the book but the question you pose is a really interesting and fundamental one.
    I don’t much care what the answer is as long as we get an answer. The fact things are difficult is also interesting as I’ve been following games designer Jane McGonigal for a while and in her her post “the hard part is the fun part” – she states …..I try to remember this when things aren’t going so well in my real life. I try to remember that tackling tough obstacles is what we choose to do for fun when we’re bored. If you play any game or any sport, you’re like me. You crave the hard part.
    I’m less concerned by the answer itself as i am of our ability to actually answer the question.

  3. I hope they are planning to do a companion book on whether the private sector can deliver. I do think there are some special features to how the public sector works (and therefore why things can go wrong) but as far as I can see both the level of performance and the main problems are remarkably similar across both sectors.

    1. Good point. There are a couple of pages in the book which list private sector IT disasters and make the point that the failure rate is not materially different between private and public sectors, but that isn’t really what this book is about. I have Alexander Stevenson’s The Public Sector: Managing the Unmanageable in my reading pile, which I am hoping will tackle that question more directly – there was an interesting piece by him in the Guardian last week on the need for marriage guidance counselling between ministers and officials.

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