In the recent past there have been a number of large governmental IT projects fail in Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK, remember the NHS NPfIT? These were widely reported in the press. Whilst the Dutch and British wait for the results of a parliamentary enquiry into the scale of the damage, the Danes have come up with K03.

K03 is the nickname for the new standardised contract covering the delivery of large IT projects to the Danish government. What is special about this standard contract is that the suppliers are obliged to cooperate with technical quality inspections which will conform to the ISO 25010 standard for software product quality.

The ISO 25010 standard defines things such as reliability, maintainability, security and transferability. Using this standard as a basis, it is possible to construct a measurement system which highlights the differences between software created following good programming practice, including good architecture, tidy programming, modular approach. This is a roadworthiness test for software systems.

I can hear you think: is it really that unusual that criteria regarding technical product quality are part of an IT contract? Isn’t that normal?

It should be the most normal thing in the world, but it isn’t. The functional quality of IT systems and services are experienced first-hand by the end-user and can be described and judged by the customer, but the same cannot be said of technical quality. This explains why technical quality requirements are often forgotten when discussing the services to be provided and so only become an issue when a development or roll-out threatens to stall.

Therefore no one should be surprised when a lack of technical quality becomes apparent. When time and budgets are agreed, but quality is ignored, that’s when things will start to slide. Furthermore, if technical quality drops too far, then time and quality are sure to follow. Delay and budgetary overruns will be the consequence with, as the root cause, inadequate safeguarding of quality.

The Danish Approach
In Denmark, the Attorney General maintains a number of standardised contracts that are used by government departments when purchasing IT services. By incorporating clauses in the most recently published contract  such as K03 that provide for independent technical quality inspections, the government departments have gained a means of neutralising an important underlying cause of IT project failures. Even during the development phase, these inspections based on ISO 25010 can be carried out to deal with problems early on, thereby avoiding costly ‘runaway’ projects.

In addition, the contractors also benefit from this new approach. They can also initiate independent technical inspections, for instance to demonstrate that the project is in safe hands with them and in order to reassure their all too fickle patrons.
The Danes have high expectations of this new approach, in part because they already have had good experiences with it. Is it worth considering translating these Danish contract clauses into other languages?

About the author:

Professor Dr. Ir. Joost Visser is Professor of Large Scale Software Systems at the Radboud Universiteit, Nijmegen, and Head of Research at the Software Improvement Group