A number of high-profile government IT projects have ended in failure in recent years, says Gartner research director Darryl Carlton.

Take the British Child Support Agency for example, which ranks as one of the worst public administration scandals of all time. Not only did the system have an 85 percent error rate in calculating payments but, seven years after it was introduced, there were so many complex rules involved that the system was completely undeliverable.

In Australia, it took the tragic death of an 11-year-old boy to highlight the massive failure of the Victoria Police LINK crime-reporting project. A report by the Victorian Government Ombudsman described the project as “fatally hampered by a poorly constructed business case that grossly underestimated the cost and complexity of the problem”.

Worse, it took the project team four years to identify the project was $80-million under-funded.

These two agencies are not alone. The BBC, Sky News, Homeland Security, the US Air Force, and even Queensland Health have all had similar failures.

Why do these projects fail?

* Business process complexity – it sounds simple, but one of the most important reasons projects fail is that governments bite off more than they can chew. Projects are too big, too complex, too ambitious. If the public sector is to stem the rate of failure, they must find ways to reduce the complexity of the ICT systems and technologies that underpin it.

* Portfolio management – for 30 years, IT has been telling businesses there is no such thing as an IT project; that it’s a business project and the business, as a whole, needs to take ownership; that the most important IT person in the enterprise is the CEO. You know that old saying ‘be careful what you wish for because you just might get it’?

Well, business listened and took control. IT leaders are now trying to reign in ‘shadow IT’ that has become so rampant it now represents 36% of all public sector IT spend.

Business leaders have taken it upon themselves to make complex IT decisions, often dismissing CIOs as being too technical when they raise concerns. Having pushed for business ownership of IT decisions, we now have even bigger problems – IT spend is out of control, and IT success is as elusive as ever.

* Governance and risk management – in most of the failed government projects, governance arrangements were found to be less than effective, and responsibilities were so diffused that it was difficult to identify who was accountable.

Senior officers were reluctant to make critical decisions and project steering committees didn’t have the requisite expertise.

By muddying the waters of who is responsible for ICT-enabled projects, we have lost sight of what needs to done.

We must remember that business is not the customer and cannot dictate whatever it wants. The new reality is that business partners with IT to deliver outcomes and value to the real customer of the enterprise.