Commons committee hears ID card scheme lacks clarity and business case
The government has come under attack from IT suppliers and academics over the way it is managing the £5.8m national identity card programme.
IT suppliers association Intellect, Microsoft and academic specialists said the Home Office had rushed ahead with the scheme without sufficient consultation with industry.
The result, they said, was an ID card programme that lacked clear objectives and a clear business case, and represented a missed opportunity for implementing joined-up services across government.
Their comments, made to MPs on the Science and Technology Committee last month, were all the more extraordinary given that suppliers rarely cause ripples when government contracts worth millions of pounds are at stake.
The views, recorded in transcripts of evidence published by the committee, portrayed the ID card programme as a solution looking for a problem. The organisations questioned talked about a “silo mentality” in the Home Office, and complained that the programme lacked detailed specifications and outcomes – a combination that could potentially put the project at increased risk of failure.
Martyn Thomas, an expert on software engineering and a member of academic research group the UK Computing Research Committee, told MPs that after three and a half years, the case for ID cards was still uncertain.
“It is still, as far as I can see, unclear what the objectives of the overall programme are, and how its is envisaged it will deliver the supposed benefits. The benefits are not quantified. They are drawn extremely widely,” he said.
“It may be that if we carry on down the path that we seem to be going down, this system will fail completely and it will have to be reintroduced in 10 years.”
The heart of the problem is that the Home Office has failed to consult early enough or widely enough with the IT industry. Rather than leaving the market to produce the best system, the Home Office appears to have decided on the system in advance, the committee heard.
Dave Birch, director of consultancy Consult Hyperion, told MPs that the Home Office had already designed the system and was now asking suppliers, “What colour should it be?”
As a result, fundamental questions have been unanswered, leaving it “far from clear” what the overall objectives of the programme are and how the public and government will benefit from the ID cards.
“The requirements are woefully unclear,” said Thomas. The documentation relating to the programme claimed that ID cards would reduce fraud, for example. “But there is no quantification, there is no analysis of how the proposed scheme is going to make that kind of contribution,” said Thomas.
Microsoft said the government had missed an opportunity to evaluate alternative solutions. On the one hand, the Home Office was saying that suppliers would be free to offer a range of systems based on the outcomes the Home Office was looking for. But on the other hand suppliers were being told, “This is the way the card will work.”
There have been very few examples of how ID cards will work in practice, said Microsoft national technology officer Jerry Fishenden.
Even those that have been published, such as examples of retailers using ID cards to verify the age of customers buying alcohol, raise more questions than they answer, he said. There has been no debate, for example, over whether it was right for a retailer to be able to demand to see a person’s ID card.
“After all these consultations, we do not seem to have had an impact on the level of understanding about what makes a good identity system in practice,” said Fishenden.
And there has been little consultation about one of the most fundamental uses of ID cards – how they will be used online by the public. “There has been no discussion about what that actually means for the user with an ID card,” said Fishenden.
The Home Office has consistently argued that it needs to restrict the amount of information it can disclose to suppliers and the public, if it is to avoid stifling competition and innovation.
But this has meant that the Home Office has become unduly focused on the procurement process, rather the underlying design of the scheme, the committee heard.
“I think the industry was looking for the opportunity to understand the types of scenario that the technology needed to support, and to debate fairly openly and with each other how the technology might deliver against those scenarios,” said Fishenden. “Every time we came close to wanting to talk about the architecture we were told that it was not really up for discussion.”
Wider consultation on ID card programme needed, say suppliers
Nick Kalisperas, director of IT suppliers organisation Intellect, told MPs on the Science and Technology Committee that it was wrong to suggest that the government had consulted widely with suppliers over the ID card scheme.
“There needs to be better interaction with the IT industry, not just potential prime contractors but also those further down the supply chain, in order for them to make a clear assessment as to whether they believe this project is worth bidding for or not,” he said.
Dave Birch, director of IT advisory firm Consult Hyperion, said, “The consultation became unduly focused on procurement issues. Most of the presentations were just telling us this is how it is going to be, followed by an injunction to get out and do something about there being too much negative publicity.”
Kalisperas said, “What we have here is a reflection of the silo mentality that exists within the public sector. It is the Home Office producing a national identity card scheme but only within the boundaries that the Home Office can do.”
He urged ministers to put aside their desire for a politically-driven timetable that would see ID cards rolled out from 2009 and, if necessary, put the project on hold to allow more work to be carried out.
“If 2009 is not achievable, then ministers need to listen to that and need to cast aside their own reputation in the short-term and look at the longer-term benefits of the project,” said Kalisperas.