The Tory IT masterplan: As good as it looks?

Can the Conservatives' reforms tackle the real Achilles' heel of government IT?

Can the Conservatives' reforms tackle the real Achilles' heel of government IT?

The Tories are talking the talk when it comes to IT reform. But they'll have to do more for us to believe they're walking the walk, says Nick Heath.

The Tory master plan for reforming government IT crackles with the familiar buzzwords - cloud computing, open source, web mash-ups - but will it really make a difference?

The plan sounds good on the surface. It calls for an end to Labour's bloated multibillion-pound computer systems; the adoption of open source software; and public access to mountains of official data.

But peer more closely at this piece of Tory blue-skies thinking and the outlook is not so sunny. Beneath the veneer there is a question mark over whether the plan offers protections against the Achilles' heel of all public sector IT projects - meeting deadlines and staying within budget.

When bodies such as parliamentary spending watchdog the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the British Computer Society (BCS) asked 'Why do public sector IT projects continue to go wrong?', the answers were: a lack of project leadership, limited IT expertise and uncertainty over the goals of the IT project.

It's all well and good to talk of cutting £600m from the £16bn the public sector spends on IT each year using common data formats and smaller, cheaper systems, as well as establishing a unit within the Treasury to oversee large IT projects. But will this be enough to tackle the systemic problems in government IT?

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Have the Tories really got what it takes to shake up government IT?
(Credit: Shutterstock)

Failed projects continue to have an impact for years to come. Poor project management has contributed to the National Offender Management Information System doubling in cost and the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) running four years late.

Then there is the question of how well the Tory front bench understands the IT projects they want to dismantle.

Both Conservative leader David Cameron and shadow chancellor George Osborne have referred to the "NHS supercomputer" when talking about the £12.7bn National Programme for IT (NPfIT). This could be written off as shorthand for a central database created under a programme called The Spine. But in reality the NPfIT is a collection of about 10 projects to replace 5,000 ageing computer systems, which in no way could be seen as a lone "supercomputer".

Former shadow home secretary David Davis told me: "The problem is, like all organisations, ours is susceptible to the jargon and buzzwords, so you hear the phrases like 'cloud' and 'open source' and you wonder 'Do you really know what you're talking about?'."

Similarly shaky are claims made by Conservative leader David Cameron. In a speech last year he said it would be almost free if private sector companies were to store NHS medical records, claiming "services like Google Health or Microsoft Health Vault cost virtually nothing to run".

That idea even gets short shrift within the Conservative party itself, with Davis telling me it was naïve.

"The Tories said 'these are free services' and did not realise that a company such as Google is a free service to the consumer but that riding on the back of it there is a huge commercial business based around advertising. It will have to be paid for in some way," he said.

Davis added there is "no obvious commercial advantage" for a private company in storing medical records and said the public were likely to object...

...to the idea of drugs companies using a patient's medical history to serve them with targeted adverts for medicines.

On top of that there are questions about how secure a patient's medical information would be within a private company and whether there would be restrictions over whether records could be held overseas - particularly as privacy watchdog the Information Commissioner's Office has fewer powers to monitor how private companies handle data.

Then there are the much vaunted savings - much of which will come from the Conservative's plans to axe the ID cards scheme, which could save anything between £1.31bn and £2.2bn over the next 10 years, and to cut the ContactPoint database, which will cost an estimated £44m per year to run.

Yes, this could reclaim a sizeable amount of cash there but these will be long-term savings. In the short term suppliers will be trying to claw back as much money as possible in compensation for having their contracts terminated early. The Home Office has already signed four contracts for work on the National Identity Scheme, and claims the Tories would be obliged to pay £40m for axing the ID cards scheme early.

And we haven't yet mentioned the cost of retraining staff to use new open source software packages and retooling Whitehall systems to save data in standardised formats.

If the Tories take power in June, is an administration facing record levels of public debt really going to be willing to take a sizeable short term financial hit?

It is refreshing to see a prospective Tory government talking about curbing some of Labour's worst IT follies and using technology to transform public services.

But all change comes at a cost, and with doubts over how effective some of these Tory proposals will be, perhaps they should ask themselves whether it is a price worth paying.