Project mismanagement for the MOD

As a digital project manager, I couldn’t help but notice this story on the BBC News website. It’s about an army recruitment website that is costing 3 times it’s initial budget and is currently 52 months late.

Being 3 times over budget is bad enough, but when I discovered that the initial quote was for £113 million, it starts to sound incredulous.

Thinking about it more, it dawned on me that 52 months late is over 4 years! I was so flabbergasted that I went searching for the national audit office report to see what went wrong.

The background

Reading more of the background, the website is part of a larger project to meet recruitment targets. The army was 5,600 soldiers and officers short, so entered into a £495 million contract over ten years to improve recruitment.

Now, obviously I’m not party to the details of this project. However, with simple maths, even if they had to recruit 5,600 soldiers every year for 10 years, each one was costing £8,839 to use this website. The army don’t need 5,600 recruits a year.

It’s appears from the report that the primary problem for the increased cost and delays was the realisation that they couldn’t use Capita’s off-the-shelf product that was initially proposed.

As a project manager, this throws up a number of questions:
1. Why does an off-the-shelf product for such a small number of recruits cost £113 million?
2. Who did the initial requirement gathering with stakeholders? Surely this, if done correctly, would flag up that the system they were proposing wasn’t suitable.
3. Even if it was eventually discovered that only a bespoke system would fit the requirements, why did that cost £113 million?
4. How can any system at this scale be so complicated that it delivers 52 months late and still isn’t fit for purpose?
5. If the product they offered in the tender wasn’t fit for purpose, how did they win the contract? Why wasn’t it re-tendered?

Government tenders

I have some political opinions about this and the government tendering process, but this is a project management blog.

My career has given me some real experience of trying to win contracts with public sector organisations. As a small company, you don’t stand a chance against these big boys.

It was argued that small organisations couldn’t provide the stability and security of the larger outsourcing companies. But if you look at the collapse of Carillion, the problems that Interserve are reporting and the obvious failings of Capita in this story, how can this still be a legitimate reason?

Small is beautiful

I have worked with large multi-nationals who have specifically used us, as a smaller agile company. They recognise that for them to mobilise a project team internally and keep the momentum of delivery going is almost impossible. These lumbering dinosaurs that are driven by committee decision making take so long to achieve anything. We could be a long way down the road map before they even write a line of code.

The other advantage is cost. There is no way that a smaller agile digital company would charge anywhere near £113 million for a web application.

Have some faith

Maybe it’s time for the public sector to start to put their faith in small digital companies. Ironically they appear to have started to run their own digital departments in that way. I have watched with interest as DWP launch full tilt into an almost ‘digital agency’ model for their own requirements.

Using a smaller agency would give them the advantage of passionate, agile, fast moving project managers and development teams. They would have committed product owners who live or die by the decisions they make for that small team, rather than hide behind the facade of a large outsourcing beast.

The products would certainly be cheaper, and as a tax payer, that appeals to me almost as much as being shown faith to deliver by these government bodies.

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