Labour's worst IT disasters

Summary:Why repeated mistakes have cost the taxpayer billions

Why repeated mistakes have cost the taxpayer billions

Point to almost any Whitehall department and you can find an IT project that promised savings and efficiencies but delivered wasted money and delays.

Labour's track record on bringing home major new IT systems is littered with messy and expensive failures - from the Rural Payment's Agency Single Payment Scheme (RPA SPS) system, which delayed the payment of £1.5bn of subsidy payments to British farmers, to the Department for Transport's shared services centre, a project intended to save £57m that will cost £81m to complete.

The bill to the taxpayer for these overspends runs into hundreds of millions and the delays will see projects delivered tens of years late.

Anthony Miller, managing partner at analyst house TechMarketView, has watched numerous government IT projects fall into disarray.

"Labour came into power at the height of the dot-com boom and you could argue they were a victim of the tech mania that was in full swing by the end of the 90s," he told

Politicians' need to promise big results within the four-year election cycle often leads to "fundamental flaws" in the project design, Miller said, citing the National Programme for IT (NPfIT), the Department of Health's £12.7bn project to replace an ageing patchwork of 5,000 computer systems used by the NHS in England.

"Announcements are made about when projects will be ready, with very little consultation over whether it is technically feasible," Miller said.

As a member of the parliamentary spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Richard Bacon has seen the damage that naïve political aspirations can wreak on IT projects.

Last year the Public Accounts Committee held government to account for overspend and delays on a variety of IT projects, including the NPfIT, the MoD's £7.1bn Defence Information Infrastructure and the Department for Transport Shared Services Centre.

"The reason why these projects go wrong are commonplace - they are often banal in the extreme - and have been repeated many, many times," Bacon said.

"They include not talking to people who will use the systems before starting on a project.

"There is also often a failure to complete the testing on many projects because a project is being driven by a politically inspired deadline that bears no resemblance to any technical problems that might need to be overcome.

"You will also find that the government often goes for complicated, bespoke solutions when off-the-shelf components would work much better."

There are reams of reports highlighting these common pitfalls, produced by the PAC and the Office of Government Commerce's Gateway Reviews. However Bacon says that, to date, there is scant evidence that the litany of recommendations such reports include have any effect on the way government approaches future projects.

"The vexing thing about it is that the solutions are not difficult to identify but the failings continue to occur," he said.

"The real question is why is there so little, if any of a learning curve, when it comes to the projects."

TechMarketView's Miller says Labour and future administrations need to learn how to better manage the tension between political desires and technical demands of major IT projects if the government's track record is ever to improve.

"The supplier wants to make money but the government wants to win votes. It is managing the gap between political grandstanding and the pragmatics of building the solution," he said.

"Ultimately any government that undertakes major projects has to balance the political with the technological win and unfortunately for us it is the taxpayer that is left playing piggy in the middle."

Over the next eight pages takes a look at some of the biggest IT disasters that have dogged the Labour administration and the factors that contributed to their failure

Topics: Tech Industry


Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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