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The Blair IT projects

Ten years of leading the country coincided with a raft of controversial and failing government IT projects. ZDNet.co.uk brings you the decade's top 10 public-sector tech disasters
Written by David Meyer, Contributor on

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, ZDNet.co.uk 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.

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...

...almost a million taxpayer records, overpayments to the tune of £100m and payment delays for hundreds of thousands of taxpayers.

EDS and Capgemini nevertheless pocketed nearly £250m for their work. EDS's contribution to DWP IT also included the crashing of almost 100,000 desktop PCs during an upgrade from Windows 2000 to XP.

Junior doctors' online applications (2007)
The Medical Training Application Service (MTAS) was supposed to revolutionise the way in which trainee doctors applied to become consultants. In line with the modern, IT-friendly new NHS, this application process clearly had to be taken online, not conducted by the boring, old-fashioned method of traditional interviews.

This may even have worked out, if it weren't for the fact that some junior doctors' applications were easily visible to other users of the system, and for the way in which the system inexplicably treated an online questionnaire as a better indicator of good doctoring than qualifications or experience. Unsurprisingly, MTAS has been suspended.

The 30,000 young doctors who had been compelled to use MTAS while it was still operational were not at all pleased, as many felt that the automation of the application process had resulted in merit being ignored. The debacle even claimed the scalp of the chairman of the British Medical Association, James Johnson, who was deemed to have not conveyed the doctors' outrage sympathetically enough.

The NHS's National Programme for IT (ongoing)
Where to start? The way in which the vendors completely oversold the timescale of the project? The compatibility problems that came from importing a US software package into a radically different healthcare system? The bullish, and sometimes bullying, nature of the man in charge?

Even that man, Richard Granger, will now walk away. The world's largest civilian IT project, the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) is running years behind schedule and still lacks sufficient buy-in from the medical community. To Granger's credit, he set up the initial contracts with strong stipulations of non-payment in the absence of delivery, but those tactics — while stemming the haemorrhaging of NHS money that would have otherwise occurred — also resulted in the departure of one of the scheme's prime contractors, Accenture, and the near collapse of the company whose software formed the basis for everything, iSoft.

NPfIT continues, and the country watches with bated breath to see whether it manages to pull through.

ID cards (ongoing)
This is not so much a past disaster as a potential future catastrophe. Privacy issues aside, the ID card scheme is set to cost — at the bare minimum — over £5bn, while creating an ID database that even the police think will be hacked.

The lack of a transparent breakdown of costs is also causing great concern, as is the lack of proven biometric technology, but the biggest worry is the fact that there seems to be no clear rationale for the project. Is it for combating benefit fraud? Online fraud? Illegal immigration? National security? All have been given as reasons, but it has not been proved that any of those problems is solvable with ID cards — except for the issue of benefit fraud. And the cost of introducing ID cards would far outweigh the savings to be made by stopping benefit fraud.

The fight against e-crime (ongoing)
Once upon a time, the UK had a National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) which, as the name suggests, tackled technology-related crime. Then, for some reason, the NHTCU became one of several agencies to be folded into the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), a sort of British FBI.

Businesses have since criticised SOCA for not openly telling them how to combat the rising tide of e-crime, and praised the late NHTCU for having performed that task very well indeed. SOCA has defended itself by pointing to the value of co-operation between its various departments, but it has been claimed that SOCA's e-crime-fighting credentials have been harmed by the decision to replace experienced police officers with "spooks".

Meanwhile the police are complaining that local specialist units are no longer able to cope with the levels of e-crime. These complaints could lead to a new national e-crime unit — rather like the old NHTCU, in fact.

E-voting (ongoing)
Some things seem to get more complicated with added technology, and electronic voting is one. The main problem seems to be the lack of an accessible audit trail, but systems design and security are also likely to cause some sleepless nights come election time, according to the Open Rights Group (ORG).

The ORG's report in June followed its monitoring of e-voting trials at this year's local elections. Of particular concern was the fact that these systems perform more slowly than manual counting, while costing a whole lot more. Even without these factors, the ORG went so far as to call e-voting a "threat to democracy".

To be fair, it is not yet certain whether e-voting will become widespread, but the government's track record on IT projects of this size does not inspire confidence.

Gordon Brown has a low base from which to start, so on Wednesday might the fortunes of our public-sector IT projects take a turn for the better?

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