Let's stop knee jerk cuts in IT spending


There are increasingly loud voices being raised demanding cuts in public sector IT spending.

Today it is the turn of the Institute of Directors, which is calling for the scrapping of the National Programme for IT in the NHS, the ID card scheme and the ContactPoint childrens’ database.

The message is that these projects are expensive, bureaucratic and unwanted. Unfortunately, the subtext is that all public sector IT is of the same ilk.

It is not that simple. We can debate the cost of the National Programme for IT in the NHS but, thanks to the “innovative” nature of the contracts, the suppliers have been paid little for their work so far, though the admin costs for the NPfIT have been exorbitant.

The NPfIT has, as the Guardian’s Mike Cross Twittered recently, kept down local NHS IT spending, for better or for worse. Whether the project succeeds, fails or is simply cancelled, there is suppressed demand that needs to be funded.

Moreover, cancelling the contract will allow the suppliers to invoke substantial penalty clauses. Whoever is in office after the next election, whatever they do with the NPfIT, they are damned if they do and dammed if they don’t.

The ID cards programme could be scrapped, though here, the government has been trying to intertwine ID card contracts with other IT projects, to make that process more difficult.

The £224m ContactPoint, containing the personal details of every child in the UK, has been slammed from all quarters, but social workers desperately need good IT systems to help them keep tabs on and take care of vulnerable young people. ContactPoint may not be what they need, but the correct IT systems won’t come cheap.

While all the main parties vie with each other over public spending cuts, IT has to insist it is part of the solution, not the problem. If you want to cut costs while maintaining services, then IT is essential. It can’t all be done by outsourcing to the lowest bidder and driving down terms and conditions of staff.

We are talking about public sector IT, but this also applies elsewhere. If IT is to deliver on its potential then industry leaders have to tell their masters the technical, and hence, financial consequences of some of their decisions.

Perhaps a “Can do” attitude should be replaced with a “Why do” approach when IT professionals are asked to deliver complex projects to meet the whim of their masters. If It should be aligend to business, then business should also be aligned to IT.

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