Watchdog Chief Blasts Government’s IT Spending Record

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

The departing chairman of a parliamentary watchdog has heavily criticised the Government’s record of IT spending in an open letter

In what amounts to another damaging attack on Labour’s IT spending policies during its time in office, the outgoing chairman of the Public Accounts Committee has said that Government has demonstrated “a systemic failure to learn from experience acquired within and across departments.”

In an open letter to his successor as Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, Edward Leigh MP lambasted departmental IT projects that were “over-ambitious, overly complex and fail to deliver what is promised while costs rocket.”

His damning incitement comes after the true cost of Labour’s botched IT projects was exposed after an investigation by the Independent newspaper in January. That investigation found that British taxpayers were left saddled with a bill of more than £26 billion for computer systems that either suffered severe delays, or run over budget, or that were cancelled altogether.

The Government unveiled its new, but widely leaked, ICT strategy in late January, which could cut public sector IT spending by around £3.2 billion a year by the more effective use of open source software, as well as energy efficient technologies and cloud computing.

Edward Leigh Lets Rip

The frustration of Edward Leigh, who is a Conservative MP for the constituency of Gainsborough, over the Government’s IT spending projects was obvious in his letter.

“Time and again, Departments have wasted millions on IT systems that fail to live up to promise, come in late and cost hugely more than forecast,” Leigh wrote.

Edward Leigh, MP
Edward Leigh, MP

“A case in point is the Rural Payments Agency’s woeful implementation of the Single Payment Scheme, which continues to cause anxiety and hardship for farmers. The Agency spent £350 million on a cumbersome IT system that can be supported only at huge cost and which is increasingly at risk of becoming obsolete,” he added. “The data held in the system remains riddled with errors. IT failings like this are the symptom, not the cause of the problem. The root cause of this debacle has been poor leadership within the Agency and a lack of attention by the sponsoring Department.”

Leigh also highlighted the Ministry of Defence’s ambitious new £7 billion Defence Information Infrastructure system, which is designed to replace hundreds of ageing existing systems. This “was fatally flawed by poor planning,” Leigh wrote. “There was no proper pilot for this highly complex programme. In addition, the consortium implementing the project – led by EDS, a company whose track record of delivering government IT projects has not been exemplary – underestimated the complexity of the software it had agreed to create. The result was that, for over two years, it was unable to deliver a system that could safely handle material classified as Secret.”

These are by no means isolated instances, Leigh added.

Lessons Learnt

In a hope that future administrations will learn from these mistakes, Leigh set out 10 lessons learnt about Government IT spending.

  • Complexity impedes effective delivery
  • Project management must be improved
  • IT procurement is particularly weak
  • Core management skills are in short supply
  • Information must be used intelligently
  • Efficiency savings must be real
  • Government purchasing power must be maximised
  • Fraud and error must be tackled head on
  • Government must learn from experience
  • Public scrutiny adds value

It has been predicted that there will be a slowdown in the growth of government spending on IT, if the Conservative party wins the next general election.