The Blair IT projects

The Blair IT projects

Summary: Ten years of leading the country coincided with a raft of controversial and failing government IT projects. brings you the decade's top 10 public-sector tech disasters

TOPICS: Networking

Gordon Brown becomes prime minister on Wednesday, ending the decade-long reign of Tony Blair.

Blair's time in government has coincided with an era of accelerated technological development — just look at the growth of the internet. As a result, his government — like the rest of us — faced the challenge of an increasingly computerised society.

To mark the end of the Blair era, proudly presents 10 of our favourite tech-related government gaffes. Some might make you laugh, others might make you cry — but all hold lessons for anyone involved in IT.

Siemens and the passport system (1999)
It was the summer of 1999, and half a million British citizens were less than happy to discover that their new passports couldn't be issued on time, because the Passport Agency had brought in a new Siemens computer system without sufficiently testing it and training staff first.

Hundreds of people missed their holidays and the Home Office had to pay millions in compensation, staff overtime and umbrellas for the poor people queuing in the rain for passports. But why such an unexpectedly huge demand for passports? The law had recently changed to demand, for the first time, that all children under 16 had to get one if they were travelling abroad.

Tory MP Anne Widdecombe summed it up well while berating the then home secretary, Jack Straw, over the fiasco: "Common sense should have told him that to change the law on child passports at the same time as introducing a new computer system into the agency was storing up trouble for the future."

Siemens and the asylum claims (2001)
This one is not technically the fault of the Blair government, since it was initiated in 1996, but the meltdown of Siemens' immigration system project proved hugely embarrassing for the Labour administration nonetheless.

The document-management system, which was supposed to deal with asylum claims, was repeatedly delayed. Then, when it was finally put in place, it crashed under the strain of the backlog it had created.

Finally, in the run-up to a general election where asylum seekers were a hot topic, the government gave up and quietly ditched the £77m system.

Jo Moore's 9/11 email (2001)
As a form of communication, emails have the twin characteristics of being easy to circulate but hard to comprehensively destroy. This unfortunate juxtaposition played a part in the downfall of transport secretary Stephen Byers' special advisor, Jo Moore, whose immediate response to the events of 11 September, 2001 was this heartwarming rejoinder to her colleagues: "It's now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors' expenses?"

The email was leaked to the press about a month after it was first sent around the department press office. Surprisingly, it took several more months for Moore to resign. Byers followed soon after due to an assortment of scandals, and has been a backbencher ever since. Moore has since retrained as a primary school teacher.

EDS and the Child Support Agency (2004)
Clearly jealous of Siemens' limelight-hogging in the field of government IT failure, business services giant EDS waded in with this spectacular disaster, which assisted in the destruction of the Child Support Agency (CSA) and cost the taxpayer over a billion pounds.

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EDS's CS2 computer system somehow managed to overpay 1.9 million people and underpay around 700,000, partly because — echoing Siemens and its passport system (see above) — the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) decided to reform the CSA at the same time as bringing in CS2.

Edward Leigh, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, was outraged when the National Audit Office subsequently picked through the wreckage: "Ignoring ample warnings, the DWP, the CSA and IT contractor EDS introduced a large, complex IT system at the same time as restructuring the agency. The new system was brought in and, as night follows day, stumbled and now has enormous operational difficulties."

EDS and the tax credits (2005)
Despite the CSA disaster, the DWP turned again to EDS — along with Capgemini — to provide the IT horsepower behind its new tax credits system. The chaos that ensued included identity theft on an unprecedented scale, the accidental deletion of...

Topic: Networking

David Meyer

About David Meyer

David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't pay the bills. David's main focus is on communications, as well as internet technologies, regulation and mobile devices.

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  • Blair IT Projects

    Typically 60 percent of IT projects fail anyway and since some projects started before Mr. Blair, he did a fair job. You make it sound like he personally was the project manager. At least he admits he is not an IT wizard.
  • Blair's responsibility

    A fair comment, but I think the issue at stake is the enthusiasm with which the Blair administration lapped up whatever the vendors promised. True, not all these projects began with Blair, but most did - and it can be argued that they ultimately became derailed due to an institutionalised attitude towards technology that belied the technophobia of the man at the top. In other words, an attitude of hope - or blind faith - before reality and meticulous planning.
    David Meyer