Too much trust in the supplier

Advocates of PFI - the private financing of public investment - say that putting the onus on companies to raise funds and deliver...

Advocates of PFI - the private financing of public investment - say that putting the onus on companies to raise funds and deliver public services transfers risk to the supplier. But judging by this week's National Audit Office report on the attempt to build a national IT system for UK magistrates, civil servants in the Lord Chancellor's Department have used PFI to relinquish all responsibility or common sense.

The report bears witness to a series of contractual negotiations that over the past four years have seen the cost of the Libra project spiral from an original price tag of £184m to today's estimated cost of £390m.

But equally surprising is the lack of basic project know-how demonstrated by those in the Lord Chancellor's Department.

Back in May 1998, EDS dropped out of the running, leaving ICL the sole bidder to consolidate three separate IT systems servicing about 380 magistrates courts around the country.

According to the report, the Lord Chancellor's Department signed the contract without carrying out any form of cost study. In other words, it took the supplier's word for how much the project would cost without benchmarking it against its own financial analysis or that of a competing supplier.

It is yet another example of the basic tenets of IT best practice, dating back to the early days of IT implementations in the 1960s, still not being followed.

And with such huge sums involved, the evidence of such incompetence is astonishing and demonstrates a total disregard for the careful spending of public money.

Yet no one seems accountable. After all, who is going to suffer for the wasted millions besides the beleaguered tax-payer? The lawyers and consultants will continue to pick up their huge pay cheques and the top civil servants will continue to collect their knighthoods.

Where is the incentive here to get it right?

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