Despite Britain's poor track record with big public sector IT schemes, much of Labour's programme depends on them—from NHS reform to ID cards. What accounts for the high rate of failure? Has the government learnt from past mistakes?by Michael Cross / October 22, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
Plans for reforming public services over the next few years depend on a large number of gigantic new information technology systems. Every four months, Tony Blair receives a progress report on current IT projects judged to be “mission critical.” The mission critical list is secret, but is believed to contain more than 20 projects, covering everything from council tax reform to the 2012 Olympics.
The government already spends £14bn a year on computer systems and services, the highest figure in Europe and double the sum spent in 1999. The public sector accounts for 55 per cent of the whole UK market for IT.
One of the most politically sensitive IT-dependent reforms is in the NHS. The NHS is creating electronic health records for every individual in England, linked by a data “spine,” that will also allow electronic appointment booking. Contracts worth about £6bn have already been signed; the total cost of creating the system will be at least double this amount.
Other schemes include Joined-up Justice, the criminal justice IT programme; the Gershon public sector efficiency review, which relies heavily on electronic government; defence information infrastructure for the armed forces; and homeland security and electronic border controls (contracts for a system called “e-Borders” are about to be placed).
Two high-profile longer term programmes—identity cards and road pricing—will also depend on large, complex and innovative IT systems. The ID card programme will be the most ambitious in the world in its use of biometrics—the electronic capture of personal characteristics—to identify individuals.
The government’s confidence in IT to drive new policies is remarkable given the reputation for failure of public sector computer projects. Many early projects were dogged by disaster, but had little impact outside the bureaucracy. From 1990 onwards, however, as more “public-facing” government processes were computerised, failures became more visible. A rash of problems in the NHS—a flawed computer-aided despatch service for London ambulances and scandals in the Wessex regional health authority—established a perception of public sector incompetence. In the mid-1990s, a huge private finance initiative project to computerise national insurance data ran badly behind schedule. This was accompanied by problems at the ministry of defence, police and local government.