EDITOR'S BLOG: Government makes us all dupes in IT foul-ups

The government has definitely lost the plot when it comes to big data. And it's costing us - the taxpayers - millions of pounds.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 25 Sep 2013

Everyone is in a state of anxiety about big data these days. What is it, how can we use it to our benefit, what about privacy, how much will it all cost? Everyone wants to know how it all works. But one organisation we can clearly see has definitely lost the plot on big data, not that it had ever grasped it in the first place, is our government.

Today comes the latest pitiful chapter in the never-ending saga about the NHS patient record system. The public accounts committee has produced a report suggesting the now abandoned IT system has so far cost the taxpayer nearly £10bn.

Although it was canned as an abject failure back in 2008 with an estimated bill of wasted cash of £6.4 billion it is still costing us all a fortune. (The government and the Japanese firm Fujitsu are still arguing about compensation. The government's legal costs have been £31.5m over the last four years, the report notes.)

The final bill for what would have been the world's largest civilian computer set up is almost certain to be several hundreds of millions of pounds higher. Yet again we are the dupes.

MPs on the public accounts committee said final costs are expected to increase above  the existing £9.8bn because new regional IT systems for the NHS, introduced to replace the National Programme for IT, are also being badly managed and are hindered by their own contractual wrangles.

Richard Bacon, a Conservative member of the committee – a man who knows what he’s talking about as he’s contributed to a book about HMG’s legion IT cock ups – says that, "This saga is one of the worst and most expensive contracting fiascos in the history of the public sector. Yet, as the much more recent universal credit project shows, there is still a long way to go before government departments can honestly say that they have learned and properly applied the lessons from previous contracting failures."

How on earth do they still get it so wrong? How are we all signed up to contracts where –if anything goes wrong  – the mess winds up in the taxpayer’s lap with the contractors exposed to no risk and walking off scot free?

No self-respecting private business would allow it, although projects of this size and complexity are pretty rare in the private sector.  It’s not just the NHS, uniquely huge, unmanageable and dysfunctional, that makes gross errors. We’ve seen such foul ups in the CSA, the Passport Agency, the DWP, the Justice Ministry…

I’m unsure about the pros and cons of the other big health story of the day – the announcement of free schools meals for all small kids regardless of family income. Opponents of the scheme have attacked it as a waste of money – a return to a universal welfare for the middle classes where it has been decided that such handouts, like child allowance, were no longer desirable or affordable in the current economic climate.

As the Guardian says approvingly of the free dinners for all, "There is nothing "nudge" about it. This is a form of socialism, the state feeding the people."

Michael Gove doesn’t strike me as a latter day Barbara Castle and he appears to have been convinced of the idea’s merits. And, make no mistake, it was his project, given to Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent of Leon, that has been cynically hijacked by Nick Clegg in his conference week.

It always depresses me how often one sees kids sloping their way to school in the morning with a bag of crisps and a coke. The potential upside of the scheme – that many kids will learn better when properly fed and thus emerge from education smarter – seems worth it for the far more modest sum of £600 million.

The quality of school meals has improved vastly since I was eating them. Even the government can manage to rustle up the more politically correct alternative to turkey twizzlers and get it into children’s mouths without fouling it up. Can’t they?

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