The biggest IT project of all time is heading for the most tremendous flop, says Simon Moores
The consultant at the Bupa hospital laughed when I told him I was delivering a presentation on the national programme for IT at a conference this week. “It will never work,” he scoffed. “Believe me, I should know.”
Until the NHS delivers its national programme for IT, you will, like me, be able to spend months waiting to hear if a consultant specialist is available. But thanks to the miracle of technology and £6.5bn of taxpayers' money, your GP will be able to tell you the same thing instantly - this is progress. That said, it’s taken me three months and I’ll be under the knife next Tuesday - privately, of course, as that's the only available solution if I plan to use my left arm properly again before mid-2005.
In fact, my own GP is worried by the costs and the time involved in integrating a system that barely works under the strains of today with the one that will be mandated from above. That’s not to say that the national programme should be dismissed or derided. It’s just that the doctors and the IT professionals are showing very little confidence in its ability to deliver on its promises while the politicians and the companies holding the largest contracts believe the exact opposite.
The government can point to some impressive "victories" to support its belief in the certain success of the national programme. Take the Inland Revenue, which may or may not have lost "hundreds of thousands" of taxpayer records. Only last year the Earl of Northesk told the House of Lords of software errors that had led to the overpayment of tax credits totalling £94m to 455,000 households. He also warned of "wider unease about the accuracy and reliability of the data used by the Inland Revenue".
Then there’s the national firearms licensing management system - seven years late, unable to print firearms certificates and too “slow for police operational services”.
Finally, there’s the new Child Support Agency computer system, or rather there's the old system because the migration proper hasn’t happened. More than a year after the date set for the changeover, hundreds of thousands of cases remain backlogged.
I won't bore you with many more similar examples of public-sector "success". I’ve just binned the VAT Office form for online VAT returns because I firmly believe it’s safer for me to stay with paper returns, sent by post for a few years. Why? Many of us know from experience what happens when something is lost by the Inland Revenue or Customs & Excise. Whose fault will it be? Exactly. So best stay with paper and keep photocopies.
This may appear a cynical and jaded view of large public-sector projects as the IT equivalent of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, which also proved a disaster. After all, if as a nation we cannot guarantee that any train between Ramsgate and London won't break down then what possible hope can we have in the world’s largest single IT project staying on the rails? You tell me.
Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of leading industry analyst Dr Simon Moores of Zentelligence.
Acting globally, Zentelligence (Research) advises governments, suppliers, business and the media on the evolution, application and delivery of leading-edge technologies, and specialises in the areas of e-government and information security.
For further information on Zentelligence and its research, presentation and analyst services, visit www.zentelligence.com