Can politics hamper large technology projects?

Politics, rightly or wrongly, has an impact on government technology projects. It’s an inevitable part of having a democracy and political prowess can be used to drive transformation, but can it also become an obstacle to success?

Earlier this week, I wrote a story in which shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett criticised the government’s identity assurance platform Verify.

Trickett, whose job remit includes calling out government on poor performances, said the Verify programme is being handled appallingly.

“Not only is it inefficient and clearly failing, it also brings into question the security of citizens and the accountability of public services,” he said.

He’s not the first to have criticised the project, in fact, even the National Audit Office (NAO) highlighted issues with Verify earlier this year, saying the Government Digital Service (GDS) has lost focus on the strategic case for the platform. Verify is obviously a big part of the Conservatives’ technology plans. In fact, to my (and many others’) surprise, it was even included in the party’s 2017 election manifesto.

Add on Labour MP and shadow Cabinet Office minister Trickett’s comments, which also included criticising the Tories  approach to public services, which he says is “cut them, take away offices in communities or local government, and administrate what’s left online,” and it becomes political.

But is that necessarily a bad thing? Following the story, Matthew McGrory, group strategy director at Six Degrees Group highlights frustrations around the politicising of the issue.

“The politics that inevitably sometimes hampers these large-scale technology projects can sometimes be frustrating,” he says.

“Whilst I understand the need for constructive debate to challenge that the country is getting value for money I feel that the opinion may be misplaced in this particular regard.”

However, he does add that Trickett is right to point out that the project isn’t delivering what it said it was going to, and he has “no issue with that being challenged and scrutinised”.

That is just good governing and is the exact job I expect a shadow cabinet minister to be doing,” he says, but adds he feels the comments are “driven from trying to somehow attach the Verify programme to the austerity programme introduced by the Coalition government and scoring a political goal at the same time”.

“So please don’t ‘throw it in the bin’ because that’s the way the wind is blowing this particular month. Consider carefully what citizens want and any changes should be made with citizens at the heart of it,” he says.

He argues that government as platform (GaaP), the programme Verify is a part of “just makes common sense” and represents a “collaborative way of working within government that has long been overdue”.

McGrory’s comments are fair. GaaP as a principle is valuable, and getting rid of Verify and starting over would probably not be a particularly good decision.

Sometimes politics can cause unnecessary chaos, but where should we draw the line? I’d argue (and please do correct me if I’m wrong) that most comments ever made by any politician, whether it’s a backbencher, a prominent MP or the prime minister herself, are political, regardless of context.

But is it ok that technology projects become a political issue? Does a comment being politically driven make it less valid? And ultimately, does criticism such as Trickett’s hinder or help large government IT projects move forward?

I don’t have the answer, but someone out there must!