Election Fever Blights Green IT

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The parties all think you can cut costs by cutting IT – but they ignore Green IT successes, says Andrew Donoghue.

There is a common perception that give or take an Eton educated leader or two, the three main parties are basically the same.

Politicians are obviously keen to present big differences in their policies and class. But on one issue, all three main parties are guilty as charged: wasteful government IT.

Nothing to choose between the parties?

The Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and even Labour have all picked on IT as a handy whipping boy in the election so far. Tory adviser Sir Peter Gershon, a one time government adviser, recently told the Financial Times that up to £9.5bn could be saved from measures that included cutting back government IT projects.

Over recent months, the Tories have repeatedly attacked the government for frivolous and failed IT projects. “Since 1997, Labour ministers have spent approximately £100 billion on IT projects, more than any other European country. A recent study concluded that 70 percent of recent IT projects have failed – meaning tens of billions of pounds wasted on systems ranging from the calamitous £20 billion NHS supercomputer to the poorly managed Home Office probation service IT system,” shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Philip Hammond said in December last year.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats have also rounded on technology projects as a source of quick cuts including the controversial ID Cards project, and surveillance systems. The Lib Dems reckon they can save around £2bn over ten years by dropping the government’s proposed interception modernisation programme which plans to store the details of phone calls, text messages, emails and internet use. The Liberals also believe they could save £3bn over the course of a parliament by scrapping biometric passports.

Obviously, as the party in power, Labour has been less vociferous when it comes to kicking large IT projects. And it hasn’t been that vocal either about the potential of technology to help with efficiency goals. There has been some talk in the past of moving more public services online to cut costs but that appears to have tailed off as the election takes hold. It is almost as if IT has become a dirty word – inextricably linked to wastage and mismanagement.

More evidence is supplied by Labour’s recent decision to revoke plans to introduce a 50p tax on telephone lines to help fund its broadband Britain pledge. The “phone tax” or “broadband tax” was supposed to subsidise faster broadband in areas where it isn’t economic. Following criticism from many quarters, the measure was delayed in November’s Queen’s Speech. On April 6, it was among a group of proposals which Labour dropped in negotiations with the Conservatives to fast-track the Finance Act and enact this year’s budget before the election.

Labour has also gone to head to head with technology companies including BT and TalkTalk with controversial plans to cut off suspected file-sharers included in the Digital Economy Bill. The companies claim restricting the net access of whole households could have long-term implications for the development of the UK’s digital economy. But the government pushed the measures through the act anyway which last week received Royal Assent in the so-called pre-election wash-up.

IT is an easy target

Even before the election, the benefits of improving the UK’s IT infrastructure were understood, but now IT is an easy target for cuts that don’t hit “real services”. But the real disruptive power of technology to shake-up old systems and deliver greater efficiency seems to have been hushed up as election fever takes hold.

Green issues in general are being neatly sidestepped, despite recent grandstanding over climate change in the run up to the Copenhagen fiasco.

Parties seem to agree that improving efficiency can only be achieved by using less IT, rather than more. But IT investment can cut costs and carbon in the longer term – and the positive evidence is just as plentiful as the supposed catalogue of mismanaged projects trotted out by those wanting to cut IT.

This week, for instance, Nottingham University Hospital NHS Trust (NUH) revealed details of a new telecoms system which it claimed could cut costs by £77,000 a year and cut patient waiting times.

Politicians have talked good sense on the use of technology in the past. But all new tech comes with a cost and a carbon debt, making the discussion too complex for any of the parties to engage with right now.

You can’t tell one party from another because of the rush to the middle. But Green IT is disappearing from view for a different reason – a sprint to the bottom when it comes to serious debate.

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