Stop the bleeding - think BIG, but start small and build on success.

Conservative Home has a thoughtful piece by Neil O’Brien of Policy Exchange on the need to think big if we want smaller government. I was pleased that his first point was on the benefits from digitising public services – but I e-mailed him my concern that his support be construed as support for achieving this via BIG projects or contracts. I said that I would blog accordingly.

I was pleased to then learn that he agreed with much of what I am about to say. It would be boring if we agreed on everything and I will leave it to you to read his piece in order to work out where we might disagree. You can then decide for yourselves which of us is right, or if we are both wrong, whether in the same or in different ways

My first point was that the losses from computer assisted and on-line fraud (benefits, VAT, procurement etc.), exploiting weaknesses in HMGs current BIG systems, already cost the taxpayer rather more than the savings he had in mind. I remind readers of my previous blog on the areas for savings that I said the chancellor should have in his budget  

I then referred to way that the computer systems to support the Universal Credit have been contracted appear to be leading inexorably to the biggest fiasco since the DSS operational strategy and the NHS patient record, courtesy of the same consultancy mindset. As readers will be aware I have blogged several times on this theme and on how and why we should be finding lower risk ways of implementing the objectives – with which I wholeheartedly agree.

I agree with Neil on the scale of savings that could and should be made. The way to achieve them is not “BIG” projects. It is programmes of incremental change that use technology to support joined-up people processes. My view is that the biggest single obstacle to such a strategy is the business model of the big consultancies – who are adept at telling politicians that this time it will be different.

It will not.

BIG is as ugly today when it comes to delivering public sector IT than it was in the 1970s. 1980s, 1990s or 2000s. It is, however, still as lucrative for salesmen, consultants and lawyers – whether or not the anything is ever delivered beyond lines of code and boxes of components that meet the contract, not the need.

Sometimes “big” may be necessary but, if so, we should look to the means used to ensure success with the biggest and most complex systems in the UK – such as those which handle payment and transaction clearance across the City of London or telecommunications charging across worlds fixed and mobile networks. I have blogged on the issues many times before, including why we never learn  and the need to separate complexity from volume.

But the drive towards smaller government raises even bigger issues. As I have said in a different context, we are witnessing the slow death of the last steam-age nation state. Its silo structures, planned in Haldane Report of 1918 were never properly professionalised: the Fulton report of 1968 was not implemented. For example, even today very few departmental accounting officers have any accountancy qualification, however junior.

Now, after a decade or so of almost mind-blowingly inefficient and inflexible outsourcing, the silos are staggering blindly into the Internet age: an age when that which matter most, to most of the population, for most of the time, is determined locally (e.g. is it a nogo area for police and public services) or globally (routed via Facebook, Google and Microsoft).

The power or national (Westminster) or Regional (Brussels) government to do more than get in the way is fading away. The constituency activists at the Conservative Policy Forum Winter School homed in on the consequences better than most of the Westminster village when they debated definitions of “The Big Society” in January. I particularly liked: “the denationalisation of compassion”. The implications and inuendos reverberate.

I will stop there because I am conscious that I have not yet made time to do Part 2 of my Budget for IT-Enabled Recovery.

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