Time to learn from IT disasters

The public sector is failing to learn from its mistakes and is developing a cover-up culture - at great cost to the taxpayer

The public sector is failing to learn from its mistakes and is developing a cover-up culture - at great cost to the taxpayer

One of the main reasons why the public sector keeps experiencing IT disasters is that it fails to learn from previous problems. And one of the main reasons why this is the case was illustrated, yet again, last week.

Last week Computer Weekly revealed that the Inland Revenue could not locate 5.2 million records detailing the PAYE tax and National Insurance contributions paid by UK employees. This was due in part to IT problems. There were problems with the interface between the National Insurance system Nirs2, run by Andersen Consulting, and the PAYE system Cop, run by EDS. There are also problems with the optical character recognition system that should scan in the forms submitted on paper by employers. On top of this, many forms that were keyed in by hand lacked some of the usual verification procedures, thus increasing the number of errors and making it more likely that records would not be recognised by Cop.

Partly because of these missing records, the Revenue had more than eight million taxpayers' records defined as still "open" (in other words, with outstanding queries) in May, compared to just 2.5 million for the 1997-98 tax year.

When Computer Weekly called the Revenue about the problems its response was reluctant co-operation. But when Computer Weekly passed on information about the problems to other newspapers, the Revenue published a statement on its Web site rubbishing our story. It suggested that the status of open records for the 1998-99 tax year was no different from other years. And it said records were still open "not because the Inland Revenue or its computer systems have 'lost' any information or there is any problem with the systems".

Fortunately, Computer Weekly was able to give other newspapers a copy of a top-level internal memo for the deputy director of operations at the Revenue, which spelt out the problems that had occurred and made it clear that there were serious potential consequences.

But the fact is that if Computer Weekly had not published the story the information contained in the memo would never have seen the light of day. No other government department would have known about the problems and if there were any lessons to learn, too bad.

Last year the Passport Agency and the Immigration Service had serious problems with major IT projects. These problems soon led to huge queues at passport offices and long delays in the processing of immigration applications.

Yet at the time when the IT problems were at their peak, shortly before Computer Weekly wrote about them, the Home Office published its annual report in which it said that both projects were progressing satisfactorily. When we contacted the Passport Agency and the Immigration Service both initially denied that there were any serious problems.

The same pattern has been repeated time and time again, particularly where IT systems have been outsourced to an external supplier. When Computer Weekly has identified problems with public sector IT systems the usual reaction from the body concerned has been to:

  • Protect itself from criticism

  • Protect its supplier from criticism

  • Claim that Computer Weekly has got it wrong.

    IT problems have already cost taxpayers hundreds of millions, money that could have been better spent on badly-needed services.

    If we want to reduce the number of public sector IT disasters, we must put an end to the cover-up culture that leads to the same mistakes being repeated ad infinitum.

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