Ignorance of IT breeds turkeys

MP Edward Leigh says the Ministry of Defence might just as well have bought eight turkeys as eight Chinook Mk3s. We would go...

MP Edward Leigh says the Ministry of Defence might just as well have bought eight turkeys as eight Chinook Mk3s. We would go further, although admittedly with the benefit of hindsight. We suggest that the £259m used to buy the Mk3s would have been better spent on turkeys.

The criticisms made by Leigh, who is chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, apply not only to Chinook helicopters. He was drawing attention to the naive and inept specification of software - a problem that has beset large-scale IT-related projects in government for more than 20 years.

And so it is easy to imagine how the £259m spent on Chinooks that will not fly could have been better spent on turkeys.

A visitors' centre could have been built for the birds on the expansive lawns in Whitehall, where they could live their lives in luxury and become tourist attractions. Their lifestyle would be advertised under the banner: "The £259m turkeys".

To the departmental heads and ministers who come and go, and who are temporarily responsible for commissioning duff helicopters and IT systems in government, the centre would be reminder that there should be evidence of accountability, in this case public embarrassment, when taxpayers' money is wasted.

In the centre's "history" section there would be accounts of permanent secretaries and ministers who gave assurances after each disaster that the lessons had been learned. This section would exhibit details of projects with names such as CHOTS, Chinook Mk2 software, Trawlerman, Operational Strategy, Folios, Pathway and Libra.

Elsewhere, the "future" hall, with its exhibits of possible turkeys, would feature the national programme for IT in the NHS and the project to support the introduction of ID cards.

An alternative to the visitors' centre would be for the government to act on Computer Weekly's Shaking Up Government IT campaign, by publishing at least summaries of Gateway reviews on IT projects and introducing legislation that enshrines the need for accountability to Parliament in a statutory framework.

If openness and honesty on the progress of IT projects were mandatory, there would at least be more incentive for departments to get it right.

Given a choice between transparency and a visitors' centre, what would the government do? We sense that Downing Street, on reading this and taking advice from IT suppliers, would immediately begin preparing a business case for systems to help administer the new centre.

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