More questions than answers on government IT overhaul

It is looking like a very big week ahead for government IT.

A few words from chancellor Alistair Darling on the BBC yesterday have already thrown the future of the £12.7bn NHS National Programme for IT into confusion and doubt.

The Tories, meanwhile, as well as enjoying the chance to throw further barbs over the NHS project, have called for a moratorium on government IT projects to review whether or not such major spending is needed in the light of planned cuts.

Gordon Brown will today announce more details of further reductions in public spending as the General Election campaign clicks up a gear. Other IT projects will no doubt face the axe, although the prime minister is also expected to call for more public services to move online as a means of saving cash.

On Wednesday, Darling will present his pre-Budget report – Labour’s final financial review before the election – with overall public sector cuts bound to have an effect on local government IT spending.

On top of all that, the new Whitehall IT strategy, a draft of which was leaked recently, is due out at any time, possibly by the end of the week, confirming details of the G-cloud plan to introduce a cloud computing infrastructure.

Twelve years of Labour IT policy could be completely overhauled in the space of a week.

But all we have so far – and all we are likely to have for some time – is questions.

Darling told the BBC that details of cutbacks will not be confirmed until the first half of next year. In the meantime, NHS and government IT professionals are left in limbo, not knowing which projects to prioritise or even whether their work is going to be scrapped entirely.

Major suppliers will be wondering what lies in store too -and probably checking the contractual small print with their lawyers.

What, for example, will be the effect of a scaled back NHS IT programme on BT Global Services? The telco’s IT arm has already been through a massive restructuring caused in large part by its commitments to the NHS, with thousands of jobs lost and contracts renegotiated. What happens if the government decides to delay or cancel parts of the project that fall under BT’s remit? The financial implications could be significant – and certainly likely to bring legal discussions over the government’s contractual position.

Within the NHS, IT practitioners will be wondering how to move forward with much needed – and already much delayed – patient administration and electronic records systems. Will the centralised applications from BT and CSC be scrapped? Will NHS trusts be given more autonomy to purchase their own systems? And if so, how do we know if local purchasing would actually be any cheaper than the current centralised plan? After all, for years we have been told that central IT purchasing saves money.

At any time, such uncertainties would cause alarm around the public sector IT community. Given the impending election, there is already such confusion about the future that parts of government IT risk paralysis for months. Even the ambitious plans in the new strategy have to be questioned, as a potential Tory government would undoubtedly seek a further review once in power, so the feasibility of pursuing the new plan between now and next year’s national ballot must be questioned.

The need to cut costs is driving every aspect of government policy now, regardless of who is in power, and that is a fact we cannot avoid. But technology is at the heart of government and public service delivery, essential to functioning policy – and to improving efficiency and productivity to deliver a large chunk of the billions of pounds of savings being targeted.

Such deep uncertainty around IT strategy and major projects threatens to undermine more than just the work of public sector IT professionals.