June 30, 2006

The public sector is under an enormous amount of pressure to be seen to be doing something about IT. That pressure has been applied for many years, by Government decrees and some wildly optimistic targets for e-government. But it also arises from real world expectations and the need to save money, which IT-related increases in efficiency can offer. The uses to which IT is being put in the public sector, from local authorities trying to deliver one point of contact for e-government services to the use of IT in the courts, is developing rapidly. The government is spending £14 billion pa investment in IT. The OGC has published a variety of standard contracts, processes and guidance intended to facilitate the successful acquisition and implementation of new systems. These have often been innovative and have contributed to improvements in private sector procurement processes but the overall success rate in such projects has been less than impressive – and at times projects have charged forward into laughable disaster territory or, worse, have crawled into that territory years after they were supposed to be finished.


Why have things gone wrong? Are the lawyers partly to blame? A “partnership” of public sector and supplier community is sought by all, but there are concerns in the government and the IT industry that this is not being achieved in practice. There are still too many examples of projects that do not deliver the expectations of the public sector customers or meet the suppliers’ objectives of a fair return for their contributions. It is true that the public sector gets column inches whereas the private sector disasters get little coverage (unless directly responsible for insolvency) but the failure rate is not just the product of media with a facile agenda.


It is easy to recognise the problems but not so easy to do something about them. SCL is about to try. This year the SCL November Conference, Public Sector – Private Challenge, will focus on the use of IT in the public sector and in particular the interface between the supplier community and central and local government which is so essential to the delivery of business transformation through the use of IT. The views of government and of the private sector will be presented, with the ambition of generating debate and improving the understanding of the professionals serving the IT community and the public sector of what works and how to help major IT projects in the public sector deliver on time and to budget. A short residential Conference like this creates an opportunity for sensible exchanges of views in a social context as well as within the main proceedings. Practising IT lawyers will have an opportunity to contribute to a successful interaction between the public sector and the supplier community, and more generally to the improved use of IT in government.


Not only do SCL members have an interest in seeing improvements in the dialogue and the public sector success rate as citizens and taxpayers, they have an extra incentive arising from the fact that it is often the lawyers who get blamed for failures in these areas. And sometimes they are justly criticised because they have failed to force the parties to engage in meaningful dialogue when nobody else is as well placed to do so – it can be too easy to shelter behind endless pages of boiler-plate when really understanding the deal requires more effort and carries more danger.


My hope is that those attending the SCL Conference will come away better equipped to bridge the public/private divide. My fear is that those who really need to benefit from events like the SCL Conference will be the very people who don’t go.