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UK celebrates 25 years of wasteful, 'underperforming' government IT projects

National Audit Office's scathing report blames fails on lack of experience

Government IT projects are poorly thought out, often fail to achieve what they're designed to do, and are a waste of taxpayers' money.

Or so the UK's National Audit Office (NAO) has said in a report that lays bare frailties and failures that are so commonplace that few tech pros are likely to be surprised.

The report said the UK has little chance of turning things around because public sector failures are so widespread and deep-rooted, with too few senior government officials armed with the experience and skills to run such schemes.

"Despite 25 years of government strategies and countless attempts to deliver digital business change successfully, our reports show a consistent pattern of underperformance," wrote the NAO in its report "The challenges in implementing digital change" [PDF].

In a bid to try to understand why government projects are plagued by difficulties, the report said: "This underperformance can often be the result of programmes not being sufficiently thought through before key decisions on technology solutions are made. This means that there is a gap between what government intends to achieve and what it delivers to citizens and service users, which wastes taxpayers' money and delays improvements in public services."

The NAO cites a number of examples where government projects have become a costly embarrassment. This includes the Ministry of Justice's criminal electronic ankle tag project that was five years late, cost taxpayers £60m, and was blasted by MPs as a "catastrophic waste of public money."

In the end, the programme used off-the-shelf leg tags that could have been purchased years before and for a fraction of the price. The government's hapless Emergency Services Network – which is designed to offer a new mobile voice and data network for police, ambulance, and fire services – was also singled out by the NAO for being over budget and overdue.

According to the latest NAO figures, the cost of the project has gone from £6.2bn in 2015 to £9.3bn in 2019 – an increase of £3.1bn with a current completion date that is currently seven years behind schedule. From rolling out energy-monitoring smart meters to IT systems designed to handle payments, almost no part of government escapes criticism. /

"When large digital business change programmes run into difficulty, the technology solution is often cast as the primary reason for failure," said the NAO.

"There is rarely a single, isolated reason which causes critical programmes to fail." But the NAO did point the finger at one area of concern:

Only a small proportion of permanent secretaries and other senior officials have first-hand experience of digital business change and as a result many lack sufficient understanding of the business, technical and delivery risks for which they are responsible. This means that many of the problems stem from the inability of senior decision-makers to engage effectively with the difficult decisions required to implement technology-enabled business change.

Asked whether they thought the criticisms were fair, a government spokesperson told El Reg: "Many of the report's recommendations align with this government's strategy for making the UK the world's leading digital government, building on our recently published Declaration on Government Reform.

"Our new digital, data and technology leaders have already introduced many of these recommendations. These include mandatory reporting on outdated IT systems, driving innovation and digital skills across government and plans for data-sharing across online government platforms." ®

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