Voters will cast their ballots today in the most uncertain election for decades. While unlikely to influence the way people vote, technology is increasingly at the core of how governments deliver their policies.
The parties’ manifestos set out different plans for what they would do if they win power. But whichever party (or parties) form a government, they will inherit a series of IT-related projects in various states of progress and in some cases outright crisis. Here are just a few of them…
The most notable is Universal Credit. The Conservatives’ idea, to merge six working-age benefits into one monthly payment that adjusts as individuals find or lose work, has support from all the big parties.
It is on its seventh boss in two years and the latest estimates say the government could have to write off £663 million on defunct IT. However there is one small glimmer of hope: an ongoing small-scale trial of a new ‘digital solution’ which could replace the unworkable IT systems built so far.
The task facing the next government will be to assess whether that new solution offers a realistic way forward for the programme, or whether it is so far down the line of failure it should be abandoned.
The Conservatives are unlikely to scrap it as it is the brainchild of work and pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith and thus ‘their policy’.
Labour has kept its options open: the party says it would pause rollout of Universal Credit and conduct a three-month review before deciding how and whether to continue.
Whoever ends up as work and pensions minister, they will spend much of the first few weeks post-election trying to get a clear picture of whether Universal Credit can be rescued and if so how.
Another major IT debacle facing the new administration is the care.data scheme. A plan to set up a database of individual patients’ GP medical records, it was due to launch in March 2014 but was delayed a month beforehand.
NHS England said it needed more time to inform members of the public (who have the option to opt out of the scheme), after privacy experts warned it would leave patients identifiable by data linkage and said data would be made available to third parties like insurance firms.
The project is currently at something of a standstill, with a handful of GP clinics piloting the scheme but no confirmation of when it will be rolled out more widely.
Whichever party wins, getting care.data back on track – and most importantly convincing people their personal data is safe in the government’s hands – will be an urgent priority.
The Government Digital Service is widely recognised for shaking up government IT by bringing skills back in-house, improving procurement and starting to reduce reliance on a small clutch of systems integrators.
It set up a single website for government: GOV.UK, and has worked to digitise public services starting with 25 ‘digital exemplars’. However progress has been patchy, as its director Mike Bracken has admitted.
Just 15 of the 25 launched by the March 2015 deadline. Barriers have cropped up along the way, including arcane legislation, civil service inertia, restrictive procurement rules and a lack of engagement with external bodies – to name but a few.
It would be a huge step backwards to scrap GDS, which is perhaps why none of the parties are proposing to do so. However it is worth reviewing progress so far and thinking about how GDS’ role should evolve over the next Parliament.
GDS has promised to deliver the remaining 10 services and start building common, shared platforms for government. Before increasing its list of tasks, it’s worth asking why it was not able to make more radical changes during the first five years of its life.
Big IT contracts in Whitehall
Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude recently admitted the government still needs to tackle its ‘huge’ legacy IT estate, still mostly tied up in costly single-supplier deals, if it is to move to a more interoperable, platform-based approach.
The government could save up to £20 billion by 2020 as long-term, expensive IT contracts across Whitehall come to an end, he has said.
The bellwether for success will be HM Revenue & Customs’ £1 billion a year ‘Aspire’ contract with Capgemini, due to finish in 2017. It is the biggest IT deal in government .
The department hopes to replace it with a series of smaller, disaggregated contracts, saving at least 25 percent on costs.
It is an ambitious goal and too early to tell if it will work. Government CTO Liam Maxwell has said he is ‘personally responsible’ for the project. If it fails, expect recrimination and appearances before the Public Accounts Committee.
If it succeeds, it will be the ultimate vindication for those like Maxwell who argue government has paid far too much for far too long for its IT.
A Freedom of Information request recently revealed that a number of government bodies, including in the police and NHS, are still running on Windows XP over a year since Microsoft stopped supporting it.
With security updates for XP withdrawn over a year ago, the sensitive information on these machines is highly vulnerable. The government paid Microsoft £5.5 million to keep on supporting them last year but that arrangement came to an end last month.
No one government department or agency has stepped up to the plate to take responsibility for upgrading or replacing obsolete computers yet but IT tends to be within the Cabinet Office remit.
Upgrading the machines to Windows 8 or replacing them with supported versions should be a matter of priority for the incoming government.
The previous administration claimed it increased Whitehall spending with small and medium sized enterprises from 6.5 percent in 2010 to 26.1 percent last year, beating its 25 percent target.
Labour accused the Cabinet Office of ‘gaming’ the system to achieve the figures: just 10.3 percent was spent with SMEs directly, with the rest opaque subcontracted spend from big incumbent suppliers.
Tech SMEs say that although it is easier to do business with government now, for example through the G-Cloud scheme, the ‘step change’ of fully opening up the market so they can win serious business and compete with big suppliers is yet to occur.
The next government will have to decide what purpose the target serves, how procurement and payment rules can be reformed to help SMEs and how it can remove any remaining barriers so suppliers finally compete on a level playing field.
Government as a Platform
Expect to hear more about interoperability and ‘Government as a Platform’ over the next five years.
Government as a Platform is an attractive idea of government moving away from siloed, standalone systems to shared, common platforms – for example for booking appointments or making payments.
Much of this rests on the ability of the government to enforce its new rules on open standards – for example the open document format (ODF) for documents or iCal for exchanging calendar events.
There is also a debate starting to bubble below the surface within Whitehall as to whether government should build all of these individual platforms itself or buy them from suppliers then integrate them together.
There is a great deal of appetite within government and suppliers both big and small for the buy versus build debate to be had and decided upon transparently. The new government would do well to set aside some time for it.