The decline of the great British government IT scandal

Whatever happened to the great British government IT scandal?

In the 2000s, such events kept many journalists gainfully employed. Careers were built around the likes of the NHS National Programme for IT and identity cards. But their numbers have fallen away – both the scandals and the journalists – as this government’s programme of austerity reaches even this area of spending.

In seriousness, despite the fact that there are fewer juicy stories, the apparent decline in the number of government IT scandals is clearly a good thing for Britain. But why has it come about; and is it real, or are there problems below the surface?

The Labour government of 1997 to 2010 had a weakness for big IT projects. Some of this stemmed from a creditable wish to modernise the state, but some came from a starry-eyed over-estimation of what IT could do. This may have been generational: its leaders, in particular Tony Blair, liked the sound of IT but had little experience of using it. Mr Blair’s former communications head Alastair Campbell tells a good anecdote about getting a first text message from his former boss after they had left power… sent a word at a time.

Asking too much of IT had serious implications: neither Mr Blair nor a stream of home secretaries ever addressed the serious concerns about the reliability of biometric technology, on which the national identity scheme was heavily dependent, with David Blunkett once telling the Today programme that the scheme would make “the theft of our identity and multiple identities impossible. Not nearly impossible, but impossible”.

Nor did they realise that IT is better at sharing information than securing it – until HM Revenue and Customs lost 25m people’s personal data on unencrypted discs in the government’s internal mail service in 2007. This overconfidence in technology and security led to other ‘surveillance state’ projects, such as the ContactPoint database of all children and the e-Borders system to monitor all international journeys (the former abolished, the latter only partially implemented with a third of journeys still not covered).

Mr Blair and his colleagues also ignored what any good technology leader will tell you; that a successful IT project is really about people, organisations and processes. The NHS National Programme for IT did not fail because of IT – parts of it worked fine, and replacement contracts for its N3 broadband network and NHSmail email service are currently being purchased.

The National Programme’s failure came in trying to push individual NHS trusts, which differ enormously, into installing homogenous patient record software. Implementing such software is difficult enough in one trust – mainly because highly-skilled medical practitioners don’t take kindly to being told what to do, rather than because of insurmountable IT problems – but is still a better bet than trying to impose systems from above. The present government has learnt that lesson, setting a timescale for electronic patient records’ introduction but leaving trusts to do the work. If some trusts fail to meet this, the result will be local IT scandals rather than a great British one. This is also the level of accident-prone attempts by local government and police forces to outsource IT, such as Somerset’s Southwest One entanglement with IBM.

By downsizing the surveillance state, such as ditching ID cards and stepping back from greatly increased internet monitoring, as well as introducing the likes of Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit in a sensibly incremental fashion, this government has reduced the likelihood of UK-wide disasters. But while the great British IT scandal has declined, it is not dead. It is just more likely to take place at a local level, away from the national media and political spotlight.

SA Mathieson’s book, Card declined: how Britain said no to ID cards, three times over, reviews the attempts and failures of governments over the last three quarters of a century to introduce identity cards in Britain, focusing on the Identity Cards Act passed in 2006 and repealed in 2010, an issue he covered as a journalist from start to end. It is available as an e-book for £2.99 (PDF or Kindle) and in print for £4.99. 

This article also appears on the Campaign4Change website.

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