Perhaps we should just stop trying to computerise government?

The Home Office wasted nearly £350 million on a computer system for dealing with immigration and asylum applications that was abandoned, forcing staff to revert to using an old system that regularly freezes.

The “Immigration Case Work” system was commissioned in 2010 and was supposed to be a “flagship IT programme”, a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) said.

However, it suffered “delays and problems” that led to it being shut down last August. Ministers have now commissioned another new computer system that is due to cost a further £209 million by 2016-17.

The Home Office is also expected to incur extra costs to maintain the older system – which is due to expire in early 2016 – until the new technology is ready to launch, the Nation Audit Office concluded.

Sigh.

Make’ em all work only with pen and paper. At least they’d be too busy to actually do much.

36 comments on “Perhaps we should just stop trying to computerise government?

  1. Couple of years back I approached that new, automatic Passport Contol set-up they have at Gatwick Immigration.. The notice at the entrance told me to remove spectacles. I did so. The rest of the instructions were on the screen

  2. Would IBM or HM Government be offended if someone mentioned the word bong?

    I may not have spelt that correctly…

  3. Yes, but yet again, exactly the same thing can be said about the corporate private sector.
    Unfortunately, the “remedy” often seems to be to outsource bits of government to corporations. This is a misunderstanding of why markets work.

    As for the Passport machines, the Civil Service can rightly feel proud of their success in seeing off the boy Osborne. Hilariously, as any frequent flyer will tell you, the machines require more labour per traveller than the old way, and the CS has quite brilliantly turned “swinging cuts” into big budget increases.

    If we could get them to turn their skill, experience, cunning and coolness under fire into something useful, we’d be onto an absolute winner.

  4. As I see it, the problem with large government IT projects is that they’re all farmed out to one of the “members” of the back-scratching club comprising the few IT suppliers deemed large enough to cope with govt work.

    Trouble is, they’re not actually very good at it… The real skills and competence seem to be the purview of the small-to-medium outfits. I don’t know many good IT folk who’d put up with the bureaucracy and general corporatedness of the big boys – most of whom appear descended from big accounting groups and still have the same stultified ethos.

  5. Jack C,

    “Yes, but yet again, exactly the same thing can be said about the corporate private sector.”

    Show me a 4 years old computer system in the private sector that cost £300+ million that is being rewritten because it’s got problems.

  6. I was reading Tyler Cowen’s piece in the NYT about inequality, and it made me think; just how much inequality could have been eliminated by redirecting the NHS computer contract, the HS2, the Millennium dome and every other F@@ked up thing the government spunk’s our money on.
    Maybe we could give every layabout in the country an IPod and holidays in Spain if they didn’t blow so much cash on their mate’s favourite projects. Everybody knows the Boris Island airport was a non starter, but millions, perhaps hundreds of millions were spent on feasibility studies.
    Hang em all, and hand em high.

  7. These are the same morons who wanted a national ID card system for billions. We should find every single one of these cretins who lobbied for these POS and fire them. With bad references making it clear that they were fired for cause.

  8. Tim Almond,
    I couldn’t tell you offhand, but I’m very much aware of epic IT waste in the private sector.

    What I do know is that the private sector routinely fails to deliver on government IT contracts. This is incompetence on both sides isn’t it?

    We know that when the government spends it often spends very badly, but why can’t these projects be delivered?

  9. And, by the way, I’ve already agreed with Tim’s point (“why don’t we just stop …”)

    You know the “corporations” I’m thinking of, ie those one point removed from real market life.

    Amazon’s IT is very good, and it has to be. By comparison, how much did the banks spend on lovely systems prior to the crash, and why couldn’t they get any meaningful data out of them?

  10. Jack C: the “private” companies who fail to deliver on the state’s contracts are long time cronies of said state–they have failed to deliver numerous times on numerous contracts and always at exorbitant cost (the dear departed “Burning our Money” blog had chapter and verse). However they know that to roust their companies the bureaucrats would have to admit their own bungling. So it rarely happens. There will always be a fudge or a deal of some kind–it is only the money of plebs like us.

  11. It’s something to do with the mythology of IT as well.

    You’d have thought that we’d all be a lot less ignorant by now, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.

    No other industry is allowed to charge for what it doesn’t deliver, and, almost worse, charge for repairing its own mistakes (or “bugs” as they’re called, there’s no question of human error).

  12. Similar errors do indeed happen in the private sector, but their projects tend to get cancelled at £3m, not at £300m. How you can spend £297m – without realising that something is badly wrong – is beyond me.

  13. JackC,

    What I do know is that the private sector routinely fails to deliver on government IT contracts. This is incompetence on both sides isn’t it?

    Sorry, but do we know this? We know the government spent £350m on an IT system and we know it was delayed and abandoned, and that’s all we know. We have no information about what work was given to private sector suppliers and what they delivered.

  14. Jack C,

    It’s something to do with the mythology of IT as well.

    You’d have thought that we’d all be a lot less ignorant by now, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.

    No other industry is allowed to charge for what it doesn’t deliver, and, almost worse, charge for repairing its own mistakes (or “bugs” as they’re called, there’s no question of human error).

    Go on – what’s your experience with IT service management?

  15. I’ve been involved in IT for 25 years, directly and indirectly.

    Studies have shown that IT has not delivered the expected productivity improvements in admin, etc. It doesn’t take a genius.

    Here’s a thought for you (at random)

    In 1999, Microsoft announced that Office 97 was not Y2k compliant.

    Think about the ramifications of that. In particular, far from this horrendous mistake* costing them money, they actually profited from it.

    Can you imagine something similar happening outside IT?

  16. “I’ve been involved in IT for 25 years, directly and indirectly.”

    meaning? What contracts for software have you ever been involved with, apart from buying a copy of Windows?

    “Here’s a thought for you (at random)

    In 1999, Microsoft announced that Office 97 was not Y2k compliant.

    Think about the ramifications of that. In particular, far from this horrendous mistake* costing them money, they actually profited from it.”

    No they didn’t. They released Office 97 SR-2b that fixed the problem. For free.

  17. @BIS – I fly through Gatwick almost every month. Glasses, hair, beard all change frequently and I don’t have any problems.

    @Jack C

    …as any frequent flyer will tell you…

    Nope, don’t agree with that. Gatwick has about 6 of these automated machines staffed by one individual. That person makes sure the newbies hold their passport the correct way round, dissuades people from using machines already in use, guiding them to a free one (these people have failed to see the large red flashing X or the green forward arrows) and generally manages the queue into the area. Anyone else who has used one of these e-passport machines before, frequent flyer or otherwise, needs almost no supervision.

    What I do know is that the private sector routinely fails to deliver on government IT contracts. This is incompetence on both sides isn’t it?

    Nothing to do with incompetence. These companies are all about selling consultancy and the more the better. You summarised it, although also slightly missed the point; their objectives are to deliver thousands of hours of seat filling time and/or useless shelfware. Delivery of a useful system is often moot.

    Failure to negotiate appropriately with these consultancies is due either to incompetence or cronyism and blame for this cannot and should not be laid at the door of these companies. Their objectives often diverge from those of the people commissioning the system. i.e. they’re in it for the money, and the more the better.

    I’ve often worked for one of these companies as an independent sub contractor, and my only regrets have been not managing to steer more of the moolah in my own direction.

  18. It is true that private sector IT projects fail as well as public sector ones, but I suspect that the reasons for private sector failure are a subset of those for public sector failure. All IT projects are bedevilled by things like inadequate specification, creeping featuritis, over-hasty implementation and design lock-in, but if you add into the mix factors like high turnover at the ministerial/senior civil service level, misalignment of the objectives of the procuring organisation with those of the providing organisation, Friedmannian spending-of-other-peoples-money etc. the scope for disaster is amplified. Also government departments are intrinsically less nimble than companies, even big ones, so you can get a lot further up shit creek before you realise you can’t find the paddle.

  19. Justin,
    I’ve only seen the machines in operation at Heathrow.

    There they have, a) the supervisor, and, b) additional staffed desks in the automated area for when there’s a problem. The throughput per member of staff is lower, as there seem to be a great many problems.

    Many UK passports won’t work, including the first chip passports. They’ve had to be re-designed to fit the machines, so my new passport works, but my wife’s slightly older passport doesn’t.

    I’ve stayed with the old route as it’s quicker.

  20. Oh, and brand new Terminal 2 has no machines at all. Either they’re still waiting, or they’ve decided against as a cost-cutting measure.

  21. Tim Almond,
    Microsoft profited by encouraging a great many companies to buy Office 2000, as I’m sure you’re aware.

    And how on Earth did they manage to produce a non-compliant product in 1996? If that ain’t dumb or cynical I don’t know what is.

    Oh, and I’ve done a little more than buy a copy of Office.

  22. I think BiCR has outlined the main points why these flagship projects fail. I’ve worked on some of these types of projects, usually as sub-contractor to these big providers and seen varying results.

    These projects come unstuck usually because

    1) a lack of expertise on the public sector side in business analysis means the contractor ends up writing the specifications without understanding the business they are writing for

    2) the public sector attitude seems to be that once a contract is signed all effort and responsibility for the project is delegated to the contractor, this means no due diligence ever takes place on the project until the accounts department get involved.

    3) the project manager from the contractor runs rings around the public sector stakeholders due to a general lack of interest (see 2), so every effort that is required to fix mistakes in the software becomes a change request and thus chargeable.

    4) the experienced and highly competent lead techies from the contractor disappear pretty much as soon as the contract is signed to be replaced by a dribbling vegetable straight out of University to keep costs down.

    Also, as Jack C rightly points, things not working are good for the contractor because generally they keep getting paid to fix them. I question the morality of this but not as much as I question the inability of the Public Sector procurement legal folks’ ability to right a sensible provisions into a contract.

  23. Well, I’m private sector only, and the same things can happen in big companies. Point 3 certainly applies.

    The public sector certainly needs to get a lot tougher. It staggers the mind that Siemens are still allowed to pitch for UK Government business for example. If previous failures were punished, then contractors might have an interest in doing a decent job (and no, I don’t mean all contractors).

  24. 2) the public sector attitude seems to be that once a contract is signed all effort and responsibility for the project is delegated to the contractor, this means no due diligence ever takes place on the project until the accounts department get involved.

    That’s interesting because I’m working for Govt as an “industry expert” and I’ve just warned the civil servant I’m working for that they are in danger of causing the project to fail because they are over managing it and taking up too much of the contractors time on trivial project management questions. That’s because the contract manager knows sqrt(fuck all) about the industry and can only manage by numbers.
    To be fair the contractor has been a disaster, but that’s for another comment.

  25. I’m not going to comment because the disaster I’m currently involved with has already been in the news twice (for non-IT but certainly IT-disabled) reasons twice in the last month.

  26. The other key thing to ask is, will the sparkly new system actually save money or time, or actually, genuinely improve things? Too often, it’s just assumed that it will.

    I haven’t looked lately, but a couple of years ago my local Building Society was,

    a) Still using dos for account transactions (and writing in customers books)

    b) Had won some award or other recognition, 5th year in a row I think, for having the lowest management cost per pound of any financial institution in the country

    There’s a moral here. Also, once they got offline services up-and-running they ditched their own buildings and started sub-letting a couple of desk spaces worth of related businesses (say the Estate Agents).

    Correctly, in my view, they have viewed IT as just another labour-saving device that may or may not make sense. After all, they weren’t using IT to create something otherwise unavailable.

  27. So in the past few weeks, I count two Yes Minister episodes, and now this adds a Thick of It episode.

  28. @ justin
    If you need it spelled out for you:

    The mindset of any organisation, would require the customer to remove spectacles & then expect the customer to comply with instructions displayed on a small screen tells one a great deal about the organisation.

  29. Jack C: “The public sector certainly needs to get a lot tougher. It staggers the mind that Siemens are still allowed to pitch for UK Government business for example. If previous failures were punished, then contractors might have an interest in doing a decent job (and no, I don’t mean all contractors).”

    But that’s just the public sector adopting the same approach to external failure as they do to internal failure.

    Look at, for instance, Lin Homer. Ruined every civil service department she’s ever worked in, yet seems to be able to skip between the raindrops into yet another and another and another.

  30. A lot of sales organisations use cloud based CRM systems like Salesforce.com to handle large databases of clients – with large amounts of data, between different departments. Why can’t immigration department do the same thing? Unique ID number and Bob’s your proverbial uncle. Same for the NHS, anyone with authorisation can access appropriate stored records. As to passport control, the Hong Kong ID card works off a chip and a thumb print (rather than a slow and dubious facial recognition programme) and HK airport has scores of gates;- card in like an ATM, first gate opens, retrieve card walk in, gate closes. Place thumb on scanner, second gate opens. Done. 10 seconds max. Linking two stories together I would make it compulsory for all immigration and asylum seekers have a biometric ID card like this and optional for everyone else.

  31. Lots of commenters are missing the real problem. Yes it’s true that private companies also fuck up IT projects but when they do so they cannot (if they are players on competitive markets) raise their prices / revenues to recover their loss. Government can. This makes a big difference.

  32. Mark T,

    A lot of sales organisations use cloud based CRM systems like Salesforce.com to handle large databases of clients – with large amounts of data, between different departments. Why can’t immigration department do the same thing?

    There’s a thing about having your data in your own system. And having forms that produce a nice workflow.

    But none of this is exactly rocket science today. I worked on a case management system to do with child protection and it took 4 developers about 6 months to build. Then it had to be tested and so forth, but if it cost more than £2m in development staff costs, I’d be surprised. And OK, you’ve also got support, hardware, profit and so forth, but even so, how do you get £350m (and I doubt immigration is any more complicated than child protection)?

  33. I’ve worked on various big IT projects and was involved in a huge Govt one working for one of the companies considered a “usual suspect”.

    Our system worked ( eventually ) but in making it work we had to:
    Overcome the fact that the Govt department mandated the workflow and that the Business Analysts weren’t allowed to talk to the end-users. So computerisation of paper systems made everything more inflexible and cumbersome.
    Overcome massive over-engineering by the designers.
    Overcome massive ignorance of their company’s own products by the designers.
    Overcome shocking quality of programming by earnest Indians. Some of their programs passed to us didn’t even compile. I was once passed a program that was supposed to go into our Live environment ( luckily pre-launch ), I refused as it didn’t work. The attitude was that it gets released with Bug Reports, which are fixed later.

    Another problem is Wheel Re-invention Syndrome. It seems that many project managers and designers go to some secret location where there minds are wiped before they start on a new project, because they damn well seem to have forgotten how they made the last one work.

    Our employer was lucky that it had a talented group of contractors who made the system work, despite its deficiencies, it already being late and over-budget when we got hold of it. We uncovered attempted fraud, design faults and restored corners that had been cut by the Prime Contractor. The few failures occurred due to human error (eg someone shorting the electricity to the data centre) and processes outside of our control ( call centres becoming swamped due to not enough staff/telephone lines).

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