Gordon Brown's ambition to save the government billions of pounds "through new technology" is more like fiction than fact, says Colin Beveridge
It is no secret that Gordon Brown is an ambitious man. But until the other day I thought that his greatest ambition lay squarely in moving house, from No 11 to No 10 Downing Street.
Not any more, though, oh no.
It seems that he now has much bigger fish to fry than simply becoming the First Lord of the Treasury; his ambition now seems to be focused on becoming a world-class teller of fairy tales. At least that’s the distinct impression I have been given by his defence of the latest public spending review.
If he truly believes that he can take out £10bn or £15bn from government spending over the next five years “through new technology” (his words when pressed by BBC journalist John Humphrys to explain his strategy), then in my opinion, he is not just a fabulous story-teller but also sadly deluded or, at best, badly advised.
Why do I have such harsh words for a proven statesman who has skilfully and calmly steered the UK economy towards low unemployment, low interest rates and low inflation?
Mainly because he is telling us that he is going to do something that even the humblest IT programme manager, if such a beast exists, knows cannot be done.
“New technology” per se, will never deliver massive economies of scale, or massive productivity savings for that matter, especially when more than 100,000 job cuts are accounted for separately in the projected savings.
And, furthermore, Brown’s rather woolly explanations seem to draw far too heavily on reaping the benefit from already installed “new technology”.
When I heard that trail of thought from the chancellor on the radio I couldn’t believe my ears. Was he really hoping to save billions on the back of already completed government technology projects?
If so, I must have missed these fantastic nuggets amongst the litany of heavily criticised public computing initiatives that have littered the corridors of power like second-hand confetti for many years.
More to the point, haven’t most of the big government technology initiatives been financed fairly creatively, in partnership with third parties who not unreasonably will now expect to be paid for operating their technology for many years to come; surely there can’t be any thick layers of potential “fat” in those carefully constructed contracts?
So, dear Gordon, I can only say that I am really struggling to understand how you are planning to save billions “through new technology”. To the uninitiated public such an ambition may sound vaguely plausible. But to those of us in the IT world, your words ring very hollow indeed.
And it isn’t simply a case of healthy cynicism on my part. I would have much more faith in Brown’s faith in technology if the government would give us even the slightest inkling of how such ambitious benefits might be realised.
Please can we see a few draft business cases for these magnificent new initiatives so that we can all see for ourselves the roadmap for a journey that promises us, at the very least, a Damascene conversion in government computing fortunes over the next five years.
It simply isn’t good enough to say that the taxpayer will save billions “through new technology” when you are responsible for the financial welfare of 60 million people.
The stakes are way too high and we deserve to be given confidence in the spending plans. After all, it is our money and we shouldn’t be fobbed off with a shoddy fairy story about wonderful new technology veiled by smoke and mirrors.
What do you think?
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Colin Beveridge is an independent consultant and leading commentator on technology management issues. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This was first published in July 2004