Tag Archives: government

The Problems With Public Sector IT

Last night Mike Hadlow (@mikehadlow) posted a great blog about how he thought public sector IT could be fixed, coming from his perspective of a software developer working on public sector projects.

Public sector IT projects in the UK are renowned for overrunning, not working as expected and generally being an expensive drain on resources. Successive governments talk about taking IT projects in hand, but nothing seems to get done, and all the time there are a succession of high profile embarrassments, flops and cancelled projects.

I’ve had some experience working on government IT projects, and also come across people who have worked on them before and swore never again. In particular one contractor I worked with had just come off a large scale project for the NHS.

Like many big contracts it had been outsourced to one of the big corporate IT firms, who had put relatively junior project managers onto the project. They had the project plan, and were timeboxing – the problem being that at the end of each period they would just have the team move onto the next timebox, whether or not the previous one was finished. As this went on, they reported back to the civil servants in Whitehall that the project was proceeding according to plan, but when they reached the end, nothing worked as many of the deliverables for the many preceding timeboxes had been met. My contractor friend, who had many years of experience had tried early on to point out the issue to the project managers, but had basically been sent away as “just a contractor” by the young newly graduated project managers. As I said, after that experience he had sworn never to work on a public sector project again.

My experience was working on some defence projects. One in particular the company I worked for was called in for a second opinion on a system that the Army was purchasing and was being developed by a major defence IT contractor. Basically the project had hit major problems and we were consulting on what had gone wrong. On the Army side a quite senior soldier was running the project, and whilst I have no doubt he would know what to do in a battle, in an IT situation the defence contractor had taken him to the cleaners. Essentially they had got him to agree to a contract that left all the risk, and all the costs with the MoD, they basically paid for time and materials whether or not the fault that was being fixed was a bug in the software, or whatever. Again the company seemed to have put pretty inexperienced incompetent programmers who had made some fundamental programming and design errors, but as a result of the contract, the MoD were paying to fix the lot.

Many of my experiences chime with what Mike has said – the civil servants in charge of IT projects lack basic IT knowledge, and as a result don’t understand and can’t see when things are going wrong. They also rely extensively on outsourcing, something which in a number of private companies I have worked for is something to be avoided.

My experience has been that outsourcing works well if you have a clearly defined specification of what is needed. However in reality the vast majority of custom development projects are a moving target, as a result it needs a group of in house developers who are experienced developers but who also understand the business, working closely with the end users on an iterative basis. Working that way generally produces a system that more closely meets the requirements of the users, but at a lower cost. Mike highlights one such project working in that way that he has worked on that has successfully delivered, but unlike the high profile failures has largely gone unnoticed.

I can thoroughly  recommend reading Mike’s excellent piece, we can only hope that a few politicians read it too!

Clueless

Sometimes I despair of how clueless politicians can be when it comes to technology. This morning we had a great pronouncement that the government will protect children by requiring sex offenders to give them their e-mail address. Quite apart from the fact that many of the companies are based outside UK jurisdiction, how difficult is it to get another e-mail address? Anybody can get one or more addresses from Hotmail, Yahoo Mail or countless others – which again are beyond UK jurisdiction. All it is is another announcement that technically just cannot work, or make any difference at all. Clueless, absolutely clueless.

Good News from the Budget

With my Churchwarden hat on there was a good little bit of news from the Budget today – the news that although the basic rate of income tax will be cut from 22% to 20% on April 6th (which was announced last year), they are now not going to cut the rate at which Gift Aid will be paid out – at least not for the next three years. Financially, the drop in Gift Aid income would have made a small but significant impact on our income as a Church. Just a pity that the government only got round to doing anything about the problem less than a month before the change was due to take place, once Churches and charities have spent time putting together campaigns to highlight the issue to givers – it would have saved people a whole pile of work if this had been announced months ago… Better late than never though.

United?

In all the discussion about Britishness that Lord Goldsmith’s proposal for an allegiance oath yesterday have kicked off, the most interesting thing is that what appears to unite everybody is the thought that it is a totally stupid idea. Looking through the comment pieces in the papers we have “Labour’s oaths and flags do not a nation make” in The Telegraph, “Citizenship: a British farce” in The Times, “They preach citizenship, but are terrified of losing power” in The Guardian and “Let’s be modern and swear an oath to the monarchy” in The Independent.

If you’re wanting a laugh, the “Let’s be modern and swear an oath to the monarchy” is probably the funniest – but in amongst the laughs, it hits the point:

The reason anyone who tries to define “Britishness” gets in a muddle must be because there’s hardly anything that unites everyone who’s British.

Needless to say, aside from the agreement over it being a stupid idea, the papers don’t actually agree over what is actually wrong. The Telegraph article for example quickly goes off in one direction, pointing the finger at the erosion of British institutions and the transfer of power to Brussels, whereas Simon Jenkins in the Guardian looks in the other direction, commenting on the erosion of local democracy – themes that echo an article he wrote a couple of weeks ago that I picked up thanks to Raspberry Rabbit.

Jenkins article then, under the title “Instead of elected local leaders, we have the police” was looking at how he believes local democracy has been nationalised, and that this disenfranchises the local community. Social responsibility, and a definition of communal behaviour is coming from national government, and so we turn to national instruments to deal with community problems. Jenkins argument is that social responsibility and a definition of communal behaviour in the first instance needs to be defined by the local community.

Goldsmith himself highlighted the community as being one of the reasons for his pledge proposal:

“It does make sense to promote a sense of shared belonging, a sense that you are part of a community with a common venture, to integrate better newcomers to our society and be clearer about what the rights and responsibilities are.”

In many ways that is absolutely right, but the simple problem is that people are not part of a sixty million strong British community. There are a number of layers in between, at the lowest level our street, then maybe an estate or hamlet, then parish, local area, county. Taking some sort of citizenship oath in front of some local dignitary, probably at an area or county level doesn’t really address binding local communities together – and peoples concerns are much more local, usually a street or estate level. There might be some common threads in the problems, but often solutions will be different for each local community, so the community needs to come together to deal with those problems, as a recent Panorama highlighted.

The programme gave a good example of how local people improving their community at a local level themselves have made a difference to life in Braunstone, an estate in Leicester, taking the estate from being a place people wanted to escape from, to one where there is a waiting list for housing on the estate. The comparison in the programme echoes Jenkins point – whilst in other examples the community spirit is struggling leaving people feeling isolated, the people of Braunstone have decided how people in their community are to behave, and they are enforcing that themselves. Of course it wasn’t easy, and they have had help from outside – a significant financial investment in facilities, and local government and Police help in removing troublemakers – but at the core is the local community as a whole driving things forward:

“It never ceases to amaze me how a minority can control an area where a majority of people live… all because of the fear factor. If you stick together on an issue they can’t intimidate you.”

It also extends to the fact that being a good citizen isn’t being taught in school, it’s being taught by the community to each other by their actions:

“If everyone on an estate felt that it was part of their rule… just spontaneously to relate to kids… to check their behaviour [and] socialise them, you wouldn’t have half the problems. You might still have problems as kids will be kids to a certain extent but this is what the community is meant to be about – socialising the next generation of kids.”

Trying to teach citizenship only in schools and then having some sort of ceremony to show you’ve passed the course is going to have little effect on the local community and how people relate to it – it is an attempt at an off-the-shelf, top down solution that totally ignores the variety of thorny problems that people have today. Whilst those problems may benefit from top down help, they can only really be solved from the bottom up. Whether Jenkins suggestion that we should be looking to the models of local democracy used in other countries will work, or whether it’s up to local people such as those in Braunstone to take the lead I don’t know, but certainly whilst proposals such as making the countries young people to do some sort of American style allegiance oath may provide for many column inches in the papers, it totally miss the root of the problem.

Distraction Politics

So there you are as a government, taking a significant amount of heat for wasting a large amount of money on something before following the advice other parties were giving in the first place, what do you do? Why not distract the general populace by re-launching a debate on immigration!

The hot new idea this time is for people to do citizenship tests to ‘prove their worth’ – this follows on from the last hot idea less than a year ago to have a points system, and of course a citizenship test has been in place anyway since 2005.

Of course the irony is that a large number of British Citizens (and probably MP’s) probably wouldn’t be able to pass the existing test anyway. For example, try this question:

Why did the Protestant Huguenots come from France to the UK in the 16th and 17th centuries?

Most will probably get this one wrong too:

Where does most of the money for local government come from?

a) The National Lottery
b) Council Tax
c) Central Government Funds
d) A local income tax

The correct answer being c.

Of course, the announcement kicks off the usual rash of misinformed public outcry, so the various forums are already full of the usual rubbish about immigrants coming in to claim benefits and so on. For the record, immigrants pay taxes but cannot claim any sort of benefit – when Beth came in one of the things I had to sign as her sponsor was a document saying that I would financially support her as there was no recourse to public funds. In terms of the existing charges (part of the proposal is that they should be more) the current charge to naturalise as a British Citizen is £655.

Of course what it won’t address is the groups that people seem to have most problems with, which is the Eastern European migrants, who being EU citizens don’t come under the normal immigration system. Incidentally, the inaccurate rubbish about them being a drain on resources extends to them also, as they also aren’t entitled to any benefits or social housing either – hence why most end up living in massively overcrowded conditions in the lowest quality private housing.

The idea that this latest announcement is just another round of rabble rousing spin becomes even more clear when you look at some of the more detailed documents that the government are producing – an interesting read is “The Economic and Fiscal Impact of Immigrationâ€? which the Home Office produced in October. Section 2 outlines the effect on public finances paragraph 2.2.6 stating that in the long run it is likely that the net fiscal contribution of an immigrant will be greater than that of a non-immigrant.

It is also interesting reading section 5 which talks about why companies are employing migrant workers rather than British born workers – it seems that the opinions of those running businesses is rather different from the general view in the media. In the low-skilled and low paid jobs, paragraph 5.2.2 states that the

“…overwhelming majority of employers across sectors and regions started to recruit migrant workers because they could not get applications from domestic workers…â€?

Paragraph 5.2.4 is perhaps even more damning about British workers:

“Native workers sometimes proved unreliable in certain sectors… Some employers had tried recruiting applicants via a Jobcentre, but found that they sometimes turned up for interviews purely to get a form signed to enable them to receive Jobseekers’ Allowance.â€?

In paragraph 5.2.5:

“Polish workers were generally valued in London, where they were seen as highly-motivated skilled workers who could fill a skills gap.�

Paragraph 5.2.6 said that one employer in the Finance and Accountancy sector was headhunting internationally due to the very small pool of qualified applicants in the UK. Section 5.2 continues highlighting other business surveys that show the same thing – the migrants that are apparently a drain on our resources are being actively sort by British business to plug gaps where British workers are either unwilling or unable to do the jobs.

All of this outcry again harks back to the point that Ekklesia made last month – it’s a lot easier to blame a group or groups of the population for societies ills rather than addressing the real issues. So youth get blamed for crime, lone parents get blamed for the breakdown in family values, migrants get accused of scrounging benefits. It all makes big headlines, but it never really achieves anything, as in most cases it’s not really addressing the real issues – it’s just distraction politics again.

Incompetence on a Grand Scale

I have to say that it does take a pretty impressive level of incompetence to loose two discs containing the details of every single UK family claiming Child Benefit. It’s not even as if it was one of their staff – the important discs were entrusted to TNT, who handle the departments internal mail – the package vanished somewhere in their system. Just imagine what could happen once they get their ID card system up and running…

A Good Old British Panic

So after the announcement from the government last night, calm seems to have returned to Northern Rock branches across the country – well aside it seems for Golders Green where savers were still queuing this morning with the government guarantee being seen as some sort of ruse.

However social commentators are already starting to draw comparisons with another September panic – the UK Fuel Protests, or more precisely what happens if ever there is a rumour of another blockade. For example in September 2005 after a series of news stories about potential protests, long queues started forming outside petrol stations, and thousands were emptied of supplies. However the protesters said several times that they had no intention of blockading refineries again, and in the event only a small number even protested. The panic produced more of a problem than the event itself.

In exactly the same way, the Northern Rock applied for a bail out from the Bank of England, and despite people regularly saying that the bank was financially solvent, queues quickly formed of savers withdrawing their money, exacerbating the problem.

So was it right in both cases for people to panic? In the case of the September 2005 Fuel Protests people only needed to remember a few years before to the chaos that was caused by the first UK Fuel Protests. There was also a general level of mistrust both of the protesters themselves, and of government assurances. This time around, again people distrusted government and official assurances. Also anybody who looked at the compensation scheme realised that for any sort of reasonable level of savings, you were going to lose – only the first £2000 is fully guaranteed. Certainly back in 2005, whilst I didn’t queue for hours, I did make sure I’d filled up both cars so as we could get to work, and if I’d had any money in the Northern Rock I’d probably have moved it as a precaution.

So maybe the commentators are slightly wrong, the British don’t like a good panic – they just fundamentally don’t trust people in authority and what they say – hence why the people in Golders Green were still withdrawing their money this morning.