David Cameron, meet IT reality (part two)

Only last week, I wrote on this blog that David Cameron and Co are quickly learning that the problems of government IT are more intractable than their pre-election good intentions are likely to solve.

More evidence of this fact appeared, somewhat hidden away, in a National Audit Office (NAO) report released today into the effectiveness of public sector IT strategy (and as an aside, how many times has the NAO looked at this subject now? I’ve lost count).

The report revealed in a rather throwaway line that the promised £100m cap on government IT contracts may not be implemented.

In many ways it’s not a surprise if the limit never comes into action, because it was always going to be difficult to tackle enormous, bespoke Whitehall projects by breaking them down into components.

But that plan was central to Cameron’s promise to sort out government IT. It was meant to herald an era of lower risk, open source, commoditised IT, creating a market where SME suppliers could compete head to head with the dominant players, delivering unprecedented innovation and agility to public service IT.

It was meant to herald “an end to the mega IT projects“.

I’m sure that the lobbying of the big suppliers had something to do with this apparent change of heart, if it proves to be the case. But what it would mean is a continuation of the status quo, of huge projects that run over budget and over time, and go on for so long that by the time they are scrapped at huge cost to the taxpayer, the person responsible for the contract has moved on and nobody is left to take accountability.

The government will point, with justification, to the billions of pounds in savings identified by reviewing all its IT contracts, and credit is due for that. But it is equally instructive that, of the 80 projects worth more than £50m that were reviewed, only two were scrapped, and they were both well-known basket cases in e-Borders and Firecontrol.

So of all those awful mega contracts that we were to see no more of, only 2.5% (2 in 80) were deemed unworthy.   

The NAO report highlighted a number of “challenges” – for which read “criticisms” – of government IT, few of which we haven’t heard before.

The new public sector IT strategy is due out soon, and that may answer a lot of the questions around how the coalition plans to deliver on its many, ambitious IT promises. But there must be real fears that the status quo that has been so widely criticised from so many quarters, is less likely to change than we were led to hope.