When a major government IT project goes wrong, one of the most frequent causes is the mismatch between political necessity and technological reality. If a minister needs to hit a date to enact a new policy, “the IT isn’t ready” is not considered an acceptable excuse. Shortcuts must be found, compromises made. IT, as a result, goes wrong.
With this in mind, we now know that perhaps the only saving grace that prevented the ID cards scheme from becoming one of the all-time IT disasters was the fact that a change of government meant the whole policy was scrapped.
The documents released to Computer Weekly under the Freedom of Information Act show that the plan to reuse an existing benefits database at the heart of the ID scheme was fundamentally flawed from the very start. But that was not what ministers wanted to hear.
Worse still, a near-unachievable proposal was presented as a face-saving way to cut corners and hit a politically targeted date that had already been shown to be unfeasible. For Labour, facing imminent defeat in a general election, the only way to make sure its flagship identity cards policy took hold was to try to force it through soon enough to prevent a new administration from cancelling it without incurring huge expense.
As it turned out, much of that expense was spared because almost nobody wanted an ID card in the first place.
Nonetheless, ministers and civil servants pressed ahead, motivated by a political date, with a plan that could never be achieved. One can only assume that as the Labour party drifted under Gordon Brown, so the imperative to deliver the CISx plan drifted too, until it was quietly shelved.
But the fact that any government and its civil servants, despite all the evidence from previous failed IT projects, was willing to press ahead with a cavalier plan that few people involved really believed in, shows just how much has still to be learned in Whitehall.