Labour Conference: MPs admit government finds IT challenging

Labour politicians at the annual conference this week admitted the party has run into "considerable problems" with major IT programmes and policy over the past 10 years.

Labour politicians at the annual conference this week admitted the party has run into "considerable problems" with major IT programmes and policy over the past 10 years.

MPs said the government has found procurement, project management and specifying what it wants from IT challenging. But they say things are starting to improve as the IT industry continues to strengthen its links and relationship with government.

Former home secretary Charles Clarke said Labour has experienced "all kinds of problems" since coming into power in 1997.

"The potential of IT, whether it is individual records in the NHS or ID cards, is enormous understanding it and how to procure it is very difficult," he said.

"I would say, to the credit of the government, that it has tried to see the potential of IT, and tried to use it. But in so doing, it has run into all kinds of problems. What is needed is a stronger partnership between the IT industry and government, and I do think it is changing now."

But it is still not clear whether huge IT projects like the NHS Programme for IT can be delivered successfully, said Blackpool South MP Gordon Marsden. "There is a real issue for any government of whether major initiatives like the NHS computer system are capable of being delivered in a 'big bang' process, and what the implications are for that for future procurement programmes.

"There is a big question mark about how able we are to deliver this major initiative from a government perspective. The jury is still out on that," he said.

In the early days of government IT procurement, there was not enough in-house assessment of big bids from outside contractors, said Marsden. "As IT projects have got bigger, more ambitious and more complex, the need for internal government monitoring becomes more essential. In the early days, it was very difficult for the civil service to cope with that and get advice from outside. That has contributed to some of the problems. Things have now got a lot better."

Jim Knight, minister of state for schools, said the UK is a "world leader" in the application of technology to education, with equipment such as interactive whiteboards transforming the way children are taught.

He said, "There has been a huge expansion in the use of IT in the curriculum, and we are now starting to see much more creativity in the use of technology."

But the adoption of IT in other areas of government has not been so trouble-free, Knight said. "Both the public and the private sectors have had quite considerable problems with major IT procurement projects at times.

"Some are related to experience with project management in the area some are related to the scale of the project some to the rapidly changing nature of the technology. Some are related to changing specifications. IT is a rapidly changing area. Even if you buy a computer at home, you are balancing up whether you should wait for the next-generation of technology or whether you should buy it now - it is difficult."

Becky Hogge, executive director of the Open Rights Group, which campaigns on technology-related issues, said this government is the first to have presided over a digital age. She said, "Some of the things they are doing will work well, and they have a good record on intellectual property rights."

But the government's record on big IT programmes has not been so successful, she said. "They have learnt why ministers make incredibly bad project managers for computer projects. You cannot set the specifications for an IT project if you do not know what it is for.

"The government has been guilty of trying to solve social problems with technical solutions. That does not work."

Hogge added that, so far, the government has "got it wrong on personal data".

She said, "They do not respect that people's data belongs to them. They have still got an opportunity to get it right they could turn it around by understanding the importance of data privacy."

The UK has also not embraced open source technology as enthusiastically as mainland Europe, Hogge said, "Tony Blair had two special relationships: one with George Bush, and the other with Bill Gates. Questions have been raised about that relationship, and I think rightly so."

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