Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Public and private IT projects

The view that all IT work carried out by the public sector is bad and everything in the private sector, being driven by the market, approaches perfection, has been increasing its grip in Westminster. This "two legs good, four legs bad" idea was evangelised by Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine, and not disowned by the Blair-Brown administrations which followed. It has been given a fillip by the return of the Conservatives as the largest party in parliament and by a strand in Liberal thinking. Mark Littlewood, former Head of Media for the Liberal Democrat party, and director of the libertarian Liberal Vision group, has advocated shutting down or privatising most of government administration. Although he is no longer a member of the party, he still has followers within it.

The survey published by silicon.com recently should act as a corrective. Both sectors have their large failures, but as one respondent says, it's "about scale and visibility plus the emotion generated by the perceived use and abuse of public monies in failed public sector projects." He added: "Both sectors have skeletons in cupboards they'd rather not be taken to task on."

Certainly Sainsbury's troubles a few years ago with its logistics IT system became public knowledge only because of the impact it had on the supermarket giant's profits, and the consequential report to shareholders. I think the element of commercial hazard should be also taken into account.No company wants to admit that its IT systems are insecure or inefficient. There are stories of IT managers who have messed up installations but have persuaded their employers to give them good references for the price of keeping quiet. Then there are those failures which affect the public directly, like the TK-Maxx payment card security failure.

One should also be aware of the positive side of government IT. There are many systems chugging away reliably which do not make the headlines. Moreover, if it had not been for government spotting the potential for computers for bulk data processing, ahead of the commercial sector, IT development would not have advanced so quickly. The US Census Bureau (after giving a boost to IT's predecessor, punched-card tabulation) applied the original Univac to its processing in 1951. Thereafter, a steady flow of government contracts helped propel IBM to a powerful position. Over here, the General Post Office (as it then was) was an early adopter, and in the 1960s Customs & Excise developed a cargo processing system in conjuction with ICL which pioneered several techniques of real-time processing.

The scope for initiative in the public sector may be less now, but it should not be squashed entirely, as the economic liberals would have us do. There is a grave danger of demotivating civil servants, leading to sloppy work and even corruption.

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