Following the news on Friday that around 80,000 desktop machines may have crashed in the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) following a routine upgrade, ZDNet UK spoke with the Liberal Democrat IT spokesperson Richard Allan MP about the dangers of outsourcing and over-reliance on technology.
What are your initial thoughts on what went wrong with the DWP desktops?
What I have heard is that they were upgrading Windows 2000 to Windows XP. Initially I thought it must have been XP to a service pack because that is the problem in a lot of places.
To be able to make this kind of mistake with desktops is actually quite tough. The problem was across multiple sites. The fact that they [Microsoft] had to fly people in is an extraordinary state of affairs to get into. It's amazing that anyone could manage to cock it up so successfully.
But how could a relatively straightforward desktop upgrade cause so many problems?
There are some serious architecture problems there. Obviously they had no imaging system or anything like that; even in my office I have a small office network and it has the facility to take a PC image and bring them back to that (working) state if anything goes wrong.
It also throws a question mark over some of these massive outsourcing deals that we have got going on with DEFRA, we have got one going on with MoD. The logic of these deals is that you have one external supplier who manages all your desktops which is sold as low risk: 'they are only managing the desktop, it is just a bit of Windows and Office'. But what you can see is that you no longer have the internal staff to manage these things.
So you think the problem lies with the fact that the DWP has chosen to outsource its desktop management to EDS and Microsoft?
It is interesting it is EDS again. Their record recently has not been good. I can understand problems with server upgrades but killing desktops is gross incompetence. This worries me far more than anything else they have done.
It comes back to the nature of these contracts -– EDS are sitting there at some kind of central control centre and the idea is that its much more efficient to that they have trimmed it all down to have someone sit their and do everything remotely. They have pressed a button to try and update a few machines but have made a mistake a sent out this patch to sixty thousand out of eighty thousand -– they have all received the patch, the patch has killed the machines and there has been no easy way back to revive them.
What do you see as the alternative to these massive outsourcing deals?
We [The Liberal Democrats] and the select committee have argued that you need a smaller scale, more manageable contract –- bigger is not always better. By going up to these mega-contracts you take certain risks and one of those is that there are only a small group of suppliers who can bid in for this work so you are left with a less competitive market. But also you are left with a risk that if something does go wrong it goes wrong more dramatically then where you have networks of people responsible for things in bite-sized chunks.
The other thing we have called for is for there to be far more in-house expertise. For any organisation to think that it can put all its IT out is a mistake, they have got to keep in-house expertise as well. On something like this you are wondering who took the decision to push the button.
Are we going to see more problems of this kind given the Government's commitment to slash civil service headcount and rely more and more on technology?
You need people -- the idea that you can cut people out altogether is a mistake. There is a lesson that if you are going to try to depend more on technology you need more technologists. I think the problem is that they are trying to do both at the same time. They are trying to save on the general staff by introducing more technology but also save on the technical costs by going for these cut-to-the-bone contracted-out things.
As they move to becoming more technology dependent, the question that has to be asked is are they doing enough to support the technology? Or are they going for low-cost contracts on a massive scale that aren't going to deliver the kind of quality that they need? And the more dependant you are, the higher quality the service needs to be.