It was five years in planning and cost £3 million, but Birmingham City Council’s website revolution is still beset by problems. Public Affairs Editor Paul Dale examines a highly critical report exposing management failure at the heart of the IT project.
An inquiry into delays and spiralling costs behind the installation of the city council’s new website - www.birmingham.gov.uk - and IT system notes with laconic understatement: “This development has not always proceeded as well as might have been wished.”
Consultant Leigh Evans, who was asked by the council to investigate the ambitious scheme, reaches conclusions that tread a well-worn path in the history of the vast bureaucracy that is Britain’s largest public authority.
The lack of a “clear and robust” command and control structure, ineffective management, frequent changes to specifications, and the absence of a single figure with the power to ask the right questions, give orders and drive things forward are just some of the criticisms that spring from a 64-page report.
The inquiry was completed in February but has only just been published by the council’s deputy leader Paul Tilsley, who has overall political control of the website and content management system project. Given the tone, it is perhaps not insignificant that the report was released on the eve of a bank holiday weekend.
A depressing picture is painted of unrealistic deadlines and of middle managers unwilling to report the true extent of delays.
Business change director Glyn Evans’s reluctance to take the project on because his existing workload was already high is also exposed.
After speaking to more than 60 local authority officials, the authors of the report were forced to admit: “We remain unclear who is actually in overall charge of the web within Birmingham City Council.”
Glyn Evans emerges as a man who did his best, and in fact saved the council £900,000 by negotiating down additional costs that Service Birmingham, the Capita-led company responsible for the council’s IT services, wanted to impose on the web project. Coun Tilsley is also credited with personally taking action to get the website back on track.
However, the report states: “It is our opinion that a better structure was required directly below director-level to provide improved day-to-day control, information flow, and to assist in financial management.
“The whole governance and management question becomes much more complicated when one descends down the command and control structure.
“Whilst there was a continuity of governance throughout the last five years, at various times it appears there was an absence of a single project manager co-ordinating and driving the project. It need hardly be said that this factor would have proved highly problematic in ensuring delivery of the objectives as they changed over time.”
The consultants believe the council should appoint a senior official solely responsible for delivering web-based services, although it is unclear whether this will happen during a period of severe public spending cuts.
The inquiry found the council’s internal communications to be poor with a “reluctance to deliver bad news”.
The report notes: “When web deadlines are under threat it is essential that a pessimistic view be taken. Instead of this it appears that undue and over-optimistic reliance may have been placed on supposed actions which would bring the project back on plan.
“This meant that upward messages were of the type ‘it’s not great but we’re putting it right’. The real messages should possibly have been ‘it’s not great and it’s unlikely to get back on track. We’re escalating this so that you are aware and so that appropriate actions can be considered urgently’.
“We therefore recommend that all managers involved in web services be assured that it is acceptable and indeed essential to tell it like it is.”
The consultants also considered whether the new system is providing, as promised, a better and faster service.
They discovered sharp differences between the official council line – that everything is performing satisfactorily – and the truth.
Technical issues uncovered by the inquiry included the slowness of the content management system which “at times is unusable”.
The report adds: “On the day that we questioned the council web team about this, they reported that the content management system had failed catastrophically on two occasions during the day and had to be re-set each time by Service Birmingham. This situation would appear to be unacceptable and seemingly needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.”
The investigation found that the council’s own internal procedures were sometimes standing in the way of a successful web operation.
When city education officials wanted to publish details of schools closed during the winter snow storms on the website they discovered they did not have permission to do so and were denied access. Similarly, managers running council language courses found they could not use the content management system and were reduced to advertising by placing posters at various locations around the city.
The council’s claim that its new website is compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act is dismissed by the report.
Service Birmingham, which mistakenly told the council the website did meet the Act’s requirements, hardly emerges from the investigation with flying colours. The report adds: “Service Birmingham state they feel their own handling of change management could have been improved.”
The new website is described in the report as wanting. “The site itself now requires all remaining content to be uploaded and we feel that it also requires a look more in keeping with the vibrant city which Birmingham is. Navigation and design could be improved as part of this process.”