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IT is biggest area of waste in the public sector

Tony Collins

MPs used the House of Commons debate on the work of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to try to get to grips with the continuing failure of many Whitehall IT projects.

Howard Flight, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, said IT was the "area we are most failing to address and which wastes the most in the public sector".

He said, "There is much to learn from how Italy has achieved far greater efficiency in the implementation of public sector IT investment and [has learned] from some of the disciplines that have been used in the US."

Edward Leigh, chairman of the PAC, said, "New ministers arrive on the scene and load new policies and new burdens onto IT systems that simply cannot cope with them. Frankly, those lessons have to be learnt and the government has to be more conservative and more cautious in dealing with IT in the future."

Richard Allan, a Liberal Democrat member of the PAC, was concerned that project failures and subsequent criticism could stifle innovation.

He asked fellow PAC member Richard Bacon, "Do you share my fear that, in looking at all the IT failures, we might develop a very risk-averse culture whereby public authorities that need new IT systems - the police are a classic example - do not invest in them because they are scared of what will happen down the line? That, too, would be very retrograde." Bacon agreed but said public sector IT was not risk-averse.

There was an exchange of views over whether the Office of Government Commerce's Gateway reviews should be published.

Treasury minister Ruth Kelly said, "I have been involved in Gateway reviews on a number of occasions, and I can say that the OGC reviews are conducted on a confidential basisÉ If we took confidentiality away from the discussions we would not have such open and honest negotiations. Lessons would not be learnt to the same extent and the value added by the process could be significantly diminished."

To this Bacon replied, "Does the financial secretary not agree that the evidence is overwhelming that lessons are not being learnt, as the history of the past 20 years has shown? How can the situation be acceptable if suppliers do not even know that a Gateway review is taking place? What is the Treasury afraid of?"

Kelly said, "This is a question of learning from experience, and I can assure you that such lessons are being taken on board."


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