Why Politics is a Problem for IT Projects

Politics is uncertain, and uncertainty is a risk for project management. Unfortunately, this risk is not always managed adequately, and sometimes it is simply not possible to foresee.

IT projects will typically come about as a result of a specific client objective which is unlikely to undergo any long-term changes; increasing sales, for example. It is normal of course for some scope change to occur or for the Contractor (i.e. the supplier) to gain a better understanding of the Authority’s (i.e. the customer’s) needs throughout the project, but ultimately the fundamental assumptions when undertaking the project will remain the same. This is not the case when dealing with politics.

IT Group has been involved in a number of public sector disputes in the UK and around the world, but there is one in particular which faced difficulties specifically because of, amongst other things, political issues. The case involved a multi-billion dollar project incorporating the FIDIC Gold Book in the Transport & Infrastructure sector outside of the UK.

In essence, the success of the project relied on a set of assumptions which were defined prior to contract signature. Chief amongst these was an assumption that the public would comply with the new legislation which requires them to pay a toll for a motorway which utilised Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) to recognise drivers. The contract assumed that the violation rate would be 10% or less shortly after go-live, and that offender payment rates would be 60% at the same time. In reality, after a change in political focus, the new legislation was not passed. After 18 months and without fear of legal redress the violation rate averaged between 60% and 70%, and the cumulative payment rate was less than 5%, so how did this affect the system?

The ANPR system utilised ANPR technology to process traffic, which meant it had to deal with the processing and storage of millions of high-quality images per day. In particular, violating vehicles needed to be processed separately so that payment could be chased and potential punitive measures could be carried out. This meant that such images needed to be stored for longer (or indefinitely in some case), and over a period of 18 months this meant that the difference between a sustained violation rate of 10% and 60-70% was hundreds of millions of images (amongst other things). Unsurprisingly, the system was not built to deal with such pressure, so the cost of computing power and storage climbed exponentially and the project fell into distress.

One of the key questions was therefore whether or not the Contractor should have done more to account for the uncertainty of dealing with a political issue (even to the extent which requires it to disregard the initial assumptions), or whether it was simply down to the Authority (a government entity) to provide accurate information about its population (even if it is not entirely in the customer’s control).

The answer will change based on the circumstances of each project but, in this case, it was IT Group’s opinion that the Contractor acted as any reasonable supplier would have done in the circumstances by relying on the assumptions set out by the Authority.