Among the systemic causes of around £40bn of state IT-related failures are truth decay, excessive secrecy, no consequences for getting it wrong and the misleading of Parliament – a decades-old “conceal-and-deny” approach.
A public inquiry into the Post Office IT scandal is looking at the Horizon system alone – not the Whitehall culture that makes central government, with some notable exceptions, a dysfunctional buyer of IT.
Part 1 of a multi-part series of posts
By Tony Collins
Campaign4Change has compiled a list of major IT projects that have contributed to around £40bn worth of government IT-related failures since the 1970s. One current project in trouble is costing £9.3bn.
Below is a summary of 13 projects where, when things went seriously wrong, Whitehall officials or government ministers did not tell Parliament the whole truth and sometimes nothing like the whole truth.
1) The cost of a project to computerise magistrates courts involving ICL [Fujitsu] and a predecessor of the Ministry of Justice nearly trebled from £146m to £447m and did not work properly years after the roll-out;
2) The Rural Payments agency’s Single Payment Scheme cost around £350m – four times its original estimate of £75.8m – and had to be replaced. Its £155m successor system led to farmers making subsidy claims on paper;
3) A £475m IT system for a purpose-built air traffic control centre in Swanwick, Hampshire was due to go live in 1996 but was delayed by six years while costs increased by £180m;
4) Costs almost trebled on a prisons IT system [National Offender Management Information System] known as C-NOMIS from £234m to £690m and even then the National Audit Office described the system as “ultimately unsuccessful”;
5) The House of Commons was told the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Information Infrastructure would cost £2.3bn. It turned out to be £7.09bn, while there were long delays rolling it out and civil servants described parts of the system as an unmitigated disaster;
6) A £9.3bn communications system for police, ambulance and fire services, the Emergency Services Network, is currently running seven years late, is £3.1bn over budget [49%] and may never work as originally intended;
7) Whitehall’s “ FireControl” project to replace the 46 Fire and Rescue Services’ local control rooms across England with nine purpose-built regional control centres linked by a new IT system ended in failure, with £469m and seven years of work wasted while costs to maintain empty control centres continued to burden taxpayers;
8) The government-owned Post Office spent £600m on a flawed computer system, Horizon, whose defects led to hundreds of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses losing their homes, businesses and, in a few cases, their lives, while more than 700 miscarriages of justice have left taxpayers facing a £1bn compensation bill, a potential debt that leaves the Post Office technically insolvent;
9) An earlier £1bn government-funded “Pathway” computer scheme to pay benefits via a card, a project that involved social security officials, the Post Office and supplier ICL [Fujitsu], was ended after delays, a series of disagreements and an exchange of breach-of-contract notices;
10) The National Audit Office found that a new system at passport offices forced at least 500 people to cancel their holidays because passports could not be issued on time;
11) Public Accounts Committee MPs found that the Home Office continues to struggle with IT, at a “staggering” cost to the taxpayer. Its failed e-borders project cost £340m plus £185m for a legal case against supplier Raytheon in the wake of the contract’s cancellation, plus a further £173m on a delayed successor scheme. The Home Office had given “false assurances” to Parliament, had failed to be open and transparent and had continued its “miserable record of exorbitantly expensive digital programmes that fail to deliver for the taxpayer,” said the committee in 2021.
12) In the 1990s a predecessor of the Department for Work and Pensions set a then-record for overspent IT projects when a technology scheme that Parliament was told would cost about £700m in fact cost £2.6bn. At the outset, the director of the “Operational Strategy” IT project, when asked by MPs if the £700m costs would rise in real terms, replied that equipment costs would, if anything, “come down”.
13) In perhaps the biggest state IT failure to date, the Department of Health lost up to £10bn on the National Programme for IT in the NHS [NPfIT], which was “dismantled” in 2011, eight years after critics had said it could never work and after Parliament was repeatedly assured that it was making good progress. Added to the wasted billions was a reportedly huge payment to Fujitsu, one of the NPfIT suppliers. After its contract was terminated, Fujitsu sued the government for £700m. A settlement was reached in secret.
In 2021, the National Audit Office reported that, despite 25 years of government strategies and countless attempts to deliver digital business change successfully, there has been a “consistent pattern of underperformance”.
The NAO highlighted repeated causes of failure such as lack of digital expertise among decision makers.
But its cross-government report last year, “The challenges in implementing digital change”, failed to mention the systemic cultural causes of decades of IT project failures. Below are some of these underlying causes:
– In Whitehall, project failures have no bottom-line consequences. No individual need be concerned.
– Senior officials and ministers don’t have to be available on big IT contracts to make awkward decisions.
– Leaders keep changing including senior responsible owners, senior officials and ministers
– Responsibility for failure is nebulously collective and individual responsibility is, in practice, non-existent, which is not the way to run a big IT project.
– For some suppliers, there may be a huge gap between those bidding for contracts, whose promises are sometimes abundant and extravagant, and those who have to deliver.
– A “keep-it-simple” philosophy in Whitehall is rare. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of change requests are routine. Big IT programmes are often characterised by their gold-plated complexity even when simplifying business processes to suit a proven IT system is more likely to lead to success.
– when things go badly wrong, a top priority of senior officials, it appears, is to protect their minister and omit inconvenient facts from draft Parliamentary replies, speeches and government statements.
– No matter how poor the performance of big IT companies, ministers and Whitehall’s senior officials will not let a dispute with one of their major technology suppliers reach an open courtroom for fear of civil servants being put on the stand where they could reveal, under cross examination, how dysfunctional parts of government can be.
Suppliers may, however, sue their public sector customers which EDS [later HP] did in 2000. During cross-examination in court, an official said Parliament was not told the whole truth about progress on a £50m project for a new air traffic control system in Scotland.
He said the House of Commons’ Transport Committee was told that, although the project’s timetable had slipped, for reasons unrelated to the contract, EDS was performing well. But MPs were not told that, a week before the committee hearing, a different supplier, Raytheon, had been asked about the possibility of taking over the EDS contract.
The official was asked in court whether he had reported his concerns over the truth of evidence given to the transport committee. He replied that MPs were given information based on “other factors”. He said it was not his job to go and correct what the committee was or wasn’t told.
Part 2 – Slippery with the truth – follows on Monday