No government in UK history spent more time and money on IT than the outgoing Labour government, but now cuts are on the way and the procurement will be guided by more sceptical hands.
I’ll start that again. No government in UK history has wasted so much time and money on IT than the outgoing Labour government and now that cuts are on the way we should simply pray that the new lot have their wits about them.
Was it that bad? The average ‘UK government and its IT failures’ anecdote is almost as terrifying to listen to as the one Canadians tell about a fur trapper meeting a huge grizzly bear on the night his gun jammed.
This was an administration, remember, that took power in 1997, the moment when the Internet started its mainstream surge. Technology was hot, data was hot, and the new government included a younger generation able to grasp how important it all was.
Irony of ironies, the Thatcherites of the deregulated big bang, privatisation, and the computer-driven 1987 stockmarket crash, had it staring them in the face but as late as 1993 I knew of a middle-ranking Whitehall civil servant who confessed he didn’t have access to email. Why? Because he didn’t even have a PC.
New Labour changed all that. Everyone got a PC, in some cases whether they needed one or not, and it didn’t stop there. Before its terms of office were out, the government had decided that the key to changing the sclerotic relationship between government and the people was citizen-focused websites galore, super-fast broadband in every home, and massive databases that recorded and helped manage every interaction people had with the state.
Unfortunately, in its enthusiasm, the new government got carried away. Technology is expensive, technology changes faster than people and obsolescence is built in, and some technology just sucks. By the time the bill gets opened, you can get all of them rolled into one.
Behold the carcasses, from massive IT projects that went over budget and over time, and in some cases just seemed to fall over completely. Then there was an unprecedented and mixed bag of IT-related legislation that seemed to grow more and more authoritarian over time, culminating in an advanced ID card scheme few beyond Whitehall believed would work.
The NHS National Programme for IT, a range of health sector projects originally expected to cost £2.3 billion over three years but now estimated will cost anything from £10 billion to £15 billion over ten years.
A much-derided and scrapped IT system for the Child Support Agency, itself a department that consumed billions despite not being very good at its job.
A broadband procurement system that saved £3.5 million but cost £15 at the point it was closed.
The infamous Pathway project to introduce a benefits cards, an early failure for new Labour. Scrapped after costing £1 billion.
The £7 billion Defence Information Infrastructure. God knows where that’s going.
The identity card scheme which will also now be scrapped although that has managed to waste unknown sums in its futile genesis.
Apparently nobody knows how much money was wasted on IT in 13 years because even the National Audit Office doesn’t keep records on such things but it is safe to say that it is somewhere approaching £30 billion, depending on how you define ‘waste’.
What good did it all do? Citizens can pay their car road tax online, file their tax returns in the same way, and of course some of this computerisation would have had to happen anyway, efficient or not. Nobody would deny that the incredible array of incompatible IT systems New Labour inherited was an obsolete mush.
The problem with New Labour’s IT vision is that it was doomed to fall short for the reasons that governments struggle to do most of the things they do efficiently. You can superimpose basic technology (email, websites, new applications) over the structures of government but at the point where the technology suggests that the structures themselves are obsolete, change is going to slow to a crawl and probably fail.
That, I suppose, is the lesson of the last 13 years. Do a lot less, and do it well. And don’t let the IT industry convince you that this time it will be different because it won’t.
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