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Contractual Sledgehammers and Management Nuts

There is a fundamental problem with ICT contracts in the public sector.  It arises from the persistent use of contractual sledgehammers to crack management nuts.

The problem, simply described, is this.  When things go wrong with IT projects in the public sector, lessons are identified.  But, they aren’t learned consistently.  Contractual lessons are learned well, since one of the things that the public sector does well is create templates and writing guidance.  However, management lessons are not learned so well.  The public sector is not too good at firing or demoting people if they don’t deliver great results (or rewarding those that do deliver with rapid promotion and additional responsibilities, or cutting out unnecessary processes and procedures, or… well, you get the idea).

So, instead of solving a management problem by changing management, there is a tendency to deal with it by changing the contract.
– Got problems with risk management?  Why not make it the supplier’s contractual responsibility to notify you of potential risks and create mitigating actions?
– Can’t keep control over user requirements?  Why not make it the supplier’s contractual responsibility to manage and document your change control process?
– Staff don’t commit to delivering on their obligations and miss their own deadlines?  Why not make it the supplier’s contractual responsibility to identify and manage all dependencies?

In each case, the problem is one of management.  But the public sector keeps on trying to solve it using the contract.  The number, size and complexity of model ICT contracts has grown like topsy over the last twenty years.  However, all of these changes have made no difference to the number of public sector contracts that are successful.

As any builder will tell you, you need to use the right tool for the job.  Otherwise, it will cost you more and it might not work either.

Sound familiar?