The benefit of balance

With taxpayers' money at stake, public sector project failures and problems are likely to attract the kind of adverse publicity that private ventures often find easier to avoid.

With taxpayers' money at stake, public sector project failures and problems are likely to attract the kind of adverse publicity that private ventures often find easier to avoid.

Cost and accountability are major issues. A failure is very public and is regarded as a failure of government services, whether it relates to central government, such as the Child Support Agency farrago, or is a local authority project.

It is a shame if such problems overshadow public sector IT successes, which can benefit entire communities. An IT-based project can support social change and allow citizens to cut through the bureaucracy when dealing with government departments.

For example, the time-consuming procedure for buying a tax disc in person at the Post Office can now be bypassed through an online application which allows web-based checking for MOTs and insurance with minimum inconvenience to the vehicle owner.

The system depends on the ability of every MOT garage and every motor insurer to share information with the DVLA. No mean feat.

Political disagreements and public unease may have marred the image of two major IT-based undertakings in the capital: the congestion charge and the Oyster scheme card for paying for tube and bus travel.

Whether or not you believe that their introduction has been achieved with heavy-handed methods, there is no denying the significant achievement in the development and effective daily operation of an immensely complex IT infrastructure.

Among public concerns when it comes to the "joined-up" government much trumpeted by prime minister Tony Blair is whether central and local administrations can be trusted with individuals' private data.

There is often an uproar in the press if social workers have been unable, for example, to protect a vulnerable child, with columnists expressing shock at the lack of communication between various agencies.

However, when it comes to the notion of every citizen being fingerprinted for a proposed national ID card scheme, with the police permitted to trawl through related databases, it is not paranoia to feel we may be moving into an Orwellian society.

Quis custodiet custodes? Who guards the guards? as the Roman writer Juvenal asked nearly 2,000 years ago. For many of us the question seems even more pertinent today as governments seek to pry ever deeper into citizens' lives.

In his article on page 34, David Bicknell explores the benefits, limitations, and political considerations around data sharing, and looks at what is practical technologically and what appear to be political pipe-dreams.

The nub of the issue has been stated concisely by the Information Commissioner's Office.

"It is important to strike a balance between the need to share information as part of delivering efficient public services and the need to ensure privacy and the integrity of personal information," it said.

Easier said than done. But when that balance can be achieved, the pay-offs for everyone - from public sector staff and officials, through private sector services companies to the ultimate end-user, the private citizen - can be spectacular.

What happened to our £25bn?

U-turn cuts risk of ID card scheme

Is e-voting a threat to democracy?

Tony Collins' IT projects blog

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