The PASC report on government IT: a cause for cynicism and optimism

Computer Weekly has to declare a conflict of interest when it comes to writing about yet another report from some branch of Parliament that issues scathing criticisms of government IT.

Frankly, if Whitehall ever gets “Big IT” right on a regular basis, it means we have a lot less to write about and have to work even harder to find stories than we already do.

I jest of course.

But it would certainly not be that difficult to recycle here any of the many leader articles we have published over the years on the topic, full of imploring statements such as, “When will they ever learn?”, or “Haven’t we heard this before?” or “This time something has to change.”

It is important to point out that not everything in Whitehall IT is bad. The majority of government works perfectly well every day, and would not do so without the many IT systems that make its operation possible. If you think the public sector is bloated, just try running it without any IT at all. For every IT failure, there are plenty of successes – it’s just that the failures, which occur all too often, tend to be very big.

The report from the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) inquiry does, however, have one thing going for it that provides cause for hope. It has captured something of the mood of modern technology, with its acknowledgement that smaller is better, that iterative change is preferable to revolutionary change, and that the relationship between government and its suppliers needs radical reform. And that’s before welcoming the talk of openness, transparency and inter-operability that characterise the internet era of technology.

It is easy to blame the big IT suppliers – who have, after all, given plenty of reasons to do so – but government has too rarely been what the MPs’ report calls an intelligent customer. Knee-jerk outsourcing means the IT skills base in Whitehall has fallen far too low.

So it is with both cynicism and optimism that the PASC recommendations should be welcomed. We have heard this before, we hope they are starting to learn, and this time, something has to change.

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