Decades-old UK government papers show that they tried to roll out a 'Cab-E-Net' system in the '90s. It was crap

The more things change, the more they stay the same


A batch of UK government Cabinet records from late last century has revealed that difficulties in getting users to accept new systems is nothing new.

"Dave from Manchester" tipped us off about the opening of the records, part 4 of a collection of UK civil service documents dating from 1995 to 1997 and made available in PDF from the National Archives at the end of last year.

Among the revelations that Prime Minister John Major did not have a computer at home, the excitement of the first issuing of a Green Paper on CD-ROM ("government.direct"), concerns that doing IT in government properly might result in fewer MPs, and a 1997 suggestion that perhaps Michael Portillo's floppy disks should have been protected by KILGETTY (an encryption system) was the tale of Cab-E-Net.

Cab-E-Net (or CAB-E-NET) was a piece of IT infrastructure, according to the papers, charged with ensuring that government orifices, such as the pronouncements of ministers, followed the party line as well. It was also charged with maintaining a strategic diary.

The latter was the main justification for the system, enabling "all Ministers to have a much clearer picture of the activity on Government presentational issues as a whole."

Boffins dreamed that the system would also provide lines for ministers to take when questioned as well as a location to store Cabinet documents. Heck, it might even allow the posting of minister movements.

It all sounds very... SharePointy.

It also kicked off with a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement back in the mid-1990s.

Integrating Number 10's email: A Novell problem task

Sadly, however, it looks like the wheels began to show signs of coming off as 1995 drew to a close. A note from Roger Freeman, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, in November 1995 commented on the benefits of the system: "It enables E-Mail to be sent between departments (and even for the first time between the Lord President's offices here and in the House)."

However, Freeman observed that "the system depends critically on departments treating it seriously" since if people didn't bother to use it, it wouldn't contain much in the way of useful information.

By 1996, some items were still not appearing in the Cab-E-Net diary. The Number 10 Press Office had yet to make the move, and some behind the scenes sought to prod those "less enthusiastic departments" into compliance with the brave new world.

Demonstrating what can happen when groups within an organisation go their own way, the Welsh office pointed out in a 1995 memo that the offices of its ministers used their own PCs (Word for Windows) to produce a diary, which "augments a paper diary which the Secretary of State's diary secretary is completely wedded to." The press office for the Department of Health preferred to produce a weekly extract from its own diary (held in WordPerfect 5.2) and so on.

As 1996 rumbled on, the Information Centre Controller for Number 10, Donald Horsburgh, issued the faint praise: "I believe that CAB-E-NET has merit and indeed has proven that it is possible to electronically transmit papers around Whitehall," before noting it was based on Lotus Notes and sticking the knife in.

"Whilst the product is mature and potentially powerful," he conceded, "designing an effective application requires a high degree of specialist skill and training. As a result quality Notes programmers/consultants are in short supply and can be an expensive resource."

Horsburgh went on to detail his woes in integrating Number 10's email which "confirmed that potentially proprietary nature of Notes" and required the parachuting in of senior Novell and Lotus experts. "I now doubt," he said, "whether the Notes E-Mail component can ever be effectively substituted with the Groupwise E-Mail component although I was originally assured this was possible."

Horsburgh rattled off a list of worries, including fault monitoring, a reliance on dial-up (meaning that users would have to regularly connect to get updates) and suggested that, while "CAB-E-NET has considerable potential and is worth investing time in," perhaps "it would seem useful to step back and take advice on the choice of hardware and software."

Fast-forward a year to April 1997, on the eve of the handover of power from the John Major administration to Tony Blair, and Horsburgh was a little blunter in his assessment.

Noting that the dream of Cab-E-Net storing and distributing cabinet papers had been abandoned due "to lack of security accreditation", the Information Centre Controller for Number 10 went on to state "the system was designed and commissioned hastily and as a result it has suffered a number of problems since its inception."

These issues included a lack of user ("including No 10") involvement in the creation, thus creating resistance to its use, and a combination of unreliability, slowness, and physical inaccessibility.

The more things change...

It is good to see that while much has changed in the decades since, government IT projects continue, in some cases, to suck.

Officials were also unimpressed with the idea of shifting the Cab-E-Net hardware to Number 10. An inventory is helpfully provided in an annex in the archive, replete with a mix of imperial and metric measurements to enrage modern Brexiteers and Remainers alike.

Cab-E-Net consisted of a pair of IBM 320 Servers, a pair of consoles, an APC PSU, a telephone and modem rack and tape backup unit "approximately ½ foot by 12cms".

The budget for maintenance and development was set at £100,000 with staffing at £26,000. Horsburgh noted: "I would prefer if we could assess the worth of the system to the users and budget based [on] the technology required to meet that need rather than accept an arbitrary figure."

He went on to say of Cab-E-Net: "If it can be resourced properly, then it has the potential to be an example of how well IT can help government communicate effectively.

"Unfortunately in its present state it does not achieve that goal."

Horsburgh concluded: "If we were to accept it, not surprisingly, a number of large IT companies have already indicated their enthusiasm to be associated with a successful replacement system."

Also in the documents was a Microsoft work order for advice in delivering a shiny new NT4 and Office-based Office Automation platform.

"It would seem difficult," said Horsburgh in the latter part of 1996, after admitting the team had "jumped the gun by obtaining a quotation", "to argue that Microsoft's resources, direct support and commitment could be bettered by a third party..."

The UK Government has yet to respond to our queries regarding the eventual fate of Cab-E-Net and its IBM 320 Servers, although committee discussions in Parliament show it was replaced by a new "strategic planning system", AGENDA, at the behest of the Campbell / Blair regime. If you ever laid hands on it, send us an email. ®

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