Standing up for government IT - despite the e-Borders fiasco

It may be an unfashionable thing to do this week, but I’d like to stand up for government IT.

Whitehall IT has been under particular scrutiny lately, eliciting a Financial Times editorial piece, and a lengthy analysis in The Guardian, among widespread national newspaper coverage.

The catalyst for this was understandable – the Home Office being forced to stump up some £224m to Raytheon after an arbitration tribunal found the government was wrong in 2010 to cancel the supplier’s £750m contract to provide the e-Borders system.

Cue the usual – and deserved – hand wringing about government IT cock-ups.

But where the resultant criticism has got it wrong is in complaining about the same old faults that have been the cause of pretty much every past IT disaster you can think of – the “weakness for big IT projects” and “rigid specifications” cited by the FT; the “big bang” projects and lack of civil service skills referenced by The Guardian.

Nobody would deny those as major factors in the e-Borders situation, nor in other recent headline failures such as at the Ministry of Justice and in the Universal Credit welfare programme.

But it is only right and fair to point out that not only does the current government know and acknowledge these as problems, it has spent the last few years trying to do something about them.

Big IT projects? The Cabinet Office “red lines” process is in place to prevent any projects with an external spend of more than £100m unless they have a special justification.

Rigid specifications? You can’t get within earshot of a senior government IT leader without hearing the word “agile” in every other sentence.

Big bang projects? There is now a new process in place for “agile” business cases, which means IT projects no longer need to assume everything is needed up front, nor needs to go live at the same time.

Civil service skills? This remains a challenge – purely because the public sector is competing for scarce digital skills in a market full of shortages – but perhaps the most important achievement of the Government Digital Service (GDS) has been to establish that the civil service needs its own in-house digital and technology skills. Those skills must never be outsourced again.

Perhaps the most relevant proof of these changes relates to e-Borders itself. As Computer Weekly revealed earlier this year, the project that was meant to replace e-Borders was rejected by the Cabinet Office because it breached those new rules – the Home Office wanted another mega-outsourcing deal with a big systems integrator; and it did not confirm to GDS principles for agile projects.

As a result, the Home Office was sent back to the drawing board to find a new, digital approach, which is now underway.

Of course, all of those fixes described above are a work in progress and have a way to go to become embedded in government IT from top to bottom. And all it takes is a big failure in one or two smaller, agile but high-profile projects to raise fresh questions.

But until or unless that happens, we should give praise where it’s due, take encouragement from the changes underway, and as taxpayers hope they are getting it right at last.

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