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Pete Hoskin

Peter Hoskin: The public sector still has its computer leads in a tangle

Abandon hope all ye who enter here, for I’m about to talk about two very dull things: computers and my Sunday evening. Specifically, I spent a portion of the latter dealing with the former, as I updated my laptop to Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows 8. Yes — I used the words “very dull” for a reason.

What struck me about the process was just how fluid and easy it was. If you’ve done it yourself, you may have experienced the same: just pop a disc into the side of your computer, click a few times, leave the processors and motherboards to it for a while, and twenty minutes later you have the eighth incarnation of Windows smiling from your screen. None of my files were harmed in the making of this upgrade. There was no fuss or frustration. Computers really are fool-proof nowadays.

Or are they? As if guided by the e-Fates, one of the first things I did on my freshly updated computer was to read a news report about recent data losses in the NHS. You’ll be familiar with the story even if you don’t know the specifics. Thousands and thousands of patient records have been lost in the past year. Some of the losses were directly linked to computers: records being uploaded to the Internet, that sort of thing. Whereas others could be attributed to the absence of computers: anachronistic paper records dumped in public bins. Yet the moral is the same in both cases. The public sector so often comes skidding off the infobahn.

The situation, it should be said, has improved under the Coalition. Whether it’s the data transparency agenda, or the way how some of Whitehall’s most decrepit computer systems are now being picked apart to have their flaws exposed, there’s much cause for cheer. Our current Government is more suited to the digital age than New Labour ever was.

But some New Labour-style problems remain — and to an extent that often goes under-remarked. The persistent data losses are proof of that, but one might also consider the infamous NHS supercomputer (aka, the National Programme for IT) that, when work began on it in 2002, was expected to be completed within a few years at a cost of £2.3 billion, but which ended up unfinished at a cost anywhere between six and ten times greater. The Coalition claimed to have terminated this grand folly two years ago, but that was never quite the full story. Only a few weeks ago, it was basically confirmed that more taxpayers’ money — perhaps around £2 billion — would be shovelled towards one supplier for their continued work on the system, even though that system is now much less ambitious than originally envisioned. It’s been scrapped, apparently, yet we’re still paying.

And problems arise even when things are working well. Take Rotherham NHS Foundation Trust, which is often, and rightly, lauded as a model for other trusts to emulate. It decided to ignore the supercomputer as early as 2009, and come up with its own system for electronic records — which it did, for a cut-price £30-40 million. But, thanks in part to stipulations from the Department of Health about the type of “healthcare terminology” to be used, even this example of best practice came in a couple of years behind schedule.  

There are a hundred reasons why the government should work to mend these delays and blow-ups. The first that springs to mind is cost: if we take just the lowest estimates, the money blown on the NHS supercomputer adds up to over a tenth of the entire health budget. But more significant is the shuddering effect that these glitches can have on reform. It’s no surprise that folk are worried about the successful implementation of IDS’s Universal Credit, given how reliant it is on a major overhaul of Whitehall’s money-crunching machinery. And that’s just one policy among countless others that have a digital component to them.    

So what’s to be done? In truth, there are no easy panaceas, not least because the problems vary in scale and nature from the security of individual laptops to the operation of entire government departments. But, speaking to people in the streets around Parliament, some common themes do emerge.   

Foremost among them is that perpetually-holy grail: civil service reform. As I and many other people have written before, the civil service just doesn’t take the right approach to delivery. Officials are shuffled around like so many cards, and rarely have time to build up the expertise that’s required for delivering complex computer systems — assuming, as is generally the case, that they don’t have the expertise in the first place. This must be a joy for any suppliers who might look to fleece the government. Just as one civil servant has got to grips with the relevant contracts, they are moved on and another is dropped into place. It’s easy prey.

But it’s not just the civil service which is to blame. There are also the politicians themselves, who vacillate, as politicians are wont to do, in response to both internal and external factors. “No government has ever bothered thinking through the trade-offs involved with data storage and civil liberties,” complains one official, “they just make it up as they go along.” And even if a government was to get its policy into gear, there is always the possibility of a change of government or, even more certain, of technology. The Coalition is trying its best to keep pace with “cloud computing”, but very few technical types believe that they will meet their targets for 2015 — and then what will they have to catch up to?

“If only we could go just get Google or Microsoft to run the whole thing,” sighs one adviser. He fondly recalls the days when the Tory leadership recommended doing just that in the case of patient records, before their determination to draft in the Americans waned in government. And you can see his point. Even though Apple can make mistakes, you suspect that they and their ilk would do a quicker, better and cheaper job than most of the Government’s current providers could manage. It would be more Windows 8 than National Programme for IT in the NHS

Perhaps this is the redeeming hope: that cheap, mainstream technology will improve to the point that the public sector requires little else. But, in the meantime, the Coalition has to deal with the tangle of wires that’s exploded out of Whitehall and beyond. Good government increasingly requires the computer geeks.


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