Government wastage on IT schemes is “a national scandal”

Previous posts on reshaping government have prompted much reaction, particularly about the way that government currently buys services. The opening up of government contracts to small businesses is, of course, one of the Conservatives’ big themes, under the “post-bureaucratic age” moniker.

David Chassels, who runs his own business, Procession Software, calls government wastage on IT schemes “a national scandal”. He says that there is no incentive for government to buy cost-saving technologies. He’s written to permanent secretary at the Department of Work and Pensions, Sir Leigh Lewis, to make the point that: “Innovation from SMEs for IT contracts has been denied with no mechanisms in place to adopt cost saving innovative technologies.” As a result of such a regime, government contracts inexorably flow to large IT suppliers, he insists. He calls this “dumb buying.”

One is quickly in the land of geekery on such subjects. Chassels claims that the closure of the research unit at the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) has adversely affected UK Govt’s ability to make sensible procurement choices, and that breakthroughs in applications development should reduce government’s dependency on the mega-IT vendors.

I’ll confess to a natural sympathy and scant knowledge on such details, but I do respect the excellent industry title Computer Weekly, which has argued for years that an unholy marriage between public servants and the biggest IT suppliers stifles proper innovation in public services.

What’s undeniable is the scale of the spend. 

Here are just a few numbers to play with:

  • The Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission framework for support services has been advertised as a £300m to £500m project over three to five years. As David Chassels says: “All this to chase up some two million errant parents over five years? It is not just build costs that make no sense; such framework cost are way over-valued, reflecting old inflexible technology”.
  • The incomparable Tony Collins on Computer Weekly reckons that £161m of IT spend in the prisons system is unaccounted for.
  • Ten IT project failures have cost the UK taxpayer £26bn, according to one survey.
  • Liam Maxwell of the Centre for Policy Studies calculates that: “The UK Government will spend about £16.5bn on IT in 2009/10, equivalent to 1.4 per cent of GDP. Most of this money is wasted, with only 30 per cent of projects succeeding“.
Will such issue make it onto the hustings? It’s a long shot. But, at a time when every penny of public expenditure goes straight on top of existing debt, let’s imagine our public services delivered by really slick, fast, flexible technologies with accountable suppliers offering a great service. Heaven forbid, some of it could even be developed by innovative British businesses!

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