The government and Whitehall are warming to a new way of testing complex new systems: trying them out on captive taxpayers, benefit claimants and patients.
The latest trials involve the Home Office’s Identity and Passport Service.
It went live in May with a system to enable people to apply for passports online. The technology from Siemens did not work as intended, staff complained to managers that it slowed down the issuing of passports, and the system was taken out of service.
But this was not explained to applicants who waited for weeks for their passports to arrive. Some tried to complain by phone but gave up after hearing continuous automated messages.
Only after Computer Weekly made inquiries did the passport service admit that the new system had failed and it was asking some of those who had applied online to make a new application on paper.
Despite the passport service using live applications rather than test cases, the Home Office insisted in a statement that the go-live of its Electronic Passport Application system – EPA2 – was a "trial."
It appears, then, that there is now official endorsement of the idea that new technology can be tested on an unwitting public.
When in 2002 the Child Support Agency introduced a system for calculating entitlements, Whitehall officials knew the equipment had 52 critical defects, according to a report published last month by the National Audit Office.
The defective system was imposed on staff who were not trained adequately to use or understand it, and its ill-considered deployment contributed to thousands of payments being wrongly calculated or held up. But nobody in Whitehall lamented the use of claimants as guinea pigs for the new systems.
Officials at the Office of Government Commerce also gave the green light in 2002 to the go-live of a defective system to support tax credits. Whitehall, and to a much lesser extent ministers, had known that recipients of tax credits would routinely receive large overpayments which they would later be called on to pay back. Today more than £2bn in overpayments is outstanding. Again, the public were used as guinea pigs to see how well or badly the new system would work in practice.
This year Computer Weekly has revealed the effect on patients of serious flaws in the introduction of a Care Records Service which forms part of the NHS’s £12.4bn National Programme for IT [NPfIT]. The flawed go-live of a basic version of the care records service at Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre in Oxford led to hospital operations being cancelled, some treatments being deferred, patients being called in for appointments when clinics were not expecting them, and patients not being notified of scheduled appointments.
NHS papers show that some health officials were aware of flaws in the new system before it went live. But it was patients who suffered the consequences of its failed introduction.
It used to be that government and senior functionaries expressed regret in public over the failure of some major projects. The chaos caused by the rushed introduction of a new system at the London Ambulance Service in 1992, for example, led to a public inquiry. Named individuals were held accountable, and a useful report was published which identified the causes.
But in recent years the government and Whitehall have introduced flawed systems without regretting failures that have directly affected peoples’ lives.
It could be argued that the use of members of the public as test cases would be slightly more acceptable if someone were held accountable for IT-related calamities– as chief executives of companies are responsible to shareholders for major losses on failed IT projects.
But in public life, ministers and officials rarely if ever accept that they have made mistakes. Indeed, ministers even pass off failures as successes, perhaps because they are poorly briefed.
On 14 June, prime minister Tony Blair was challenged in the House of Commons to name "any major Government IT project that has been delivered on budget or on time, or which works". He replied: "There is one that is quite closely linked to the identity card idea, which, of course, is the passport system. It required a complicated computer project and it has worked extremely well."
In fact, the passport service had unsuccessfully introduced EPA2 on 16 May, a month before Blair’s assurance to the Commons. At the time of Blair’s speech the passport service was trying to cope with an increasing backlog of work. By last Thursday, 5,000 passports which had been applied for online remained to be processed.
One online applicant, Rob Dustall, told Computer Weekly that his passport took six weeks to arrive, a month longer than he expected, and only two working days before his holiday.
Most passports are issued quickly, and the staff and managers who operate and run systems to support tax credits, the Child Support Agency and the work of the NHS do their best to provide an exemplary service to the public.
They should not be blamed for the decisions of senior civil servants and ministers who seem to deem it acceptable to tackle flaws in new technology based on the misfortunes suffered by captive taxpayers, patients and claimants.