Public sector IT: review of the year

18 Dec 2009 View Comments
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Darkness is lifting on some government data

It’s not been a good year for public sector IT: yet more delays to high profile projects have come to light and lack of cash has seen many scaled back. Nevertheless, there are some bright points in terms of openness and access to previously closed government data.

The Blairite enthusiasm for shiny new technology is less apparent within the government of the past year as Gordon Brown deals with recession by slowing, and in some cases abandoning, the flagship IT projects of his predecessor.

Further reading

Although some of the £12.7bn NHS National Programme for IT has been completed, the electronic patient records project remains a very delayed thorn in the government’s side. A recent announcement that the project would be scaled back was inevitable after a raft of bad headlines combined with the pressing need to tighten belts in the public sector.

There is a similar story with the £5.6bn ID cards project. Slowed to the point of a crawl – as ministers continued to declare faith in the scheme – it is now unlikely the government will sign any new contracts before a general election next year. The Tories have promised to scrap the scheme, tying the pledge to two Conservative values - austerity and rolling back the state.

Of all government IT projects, this was the most polemical. Controversial because of plans to hold all biometric details centrally, the project became a talisman for the "Big Brother State."

However, should they win, the Tories will drop the ID Cards moniker which so outraged civil liberties campaigners, but not the scheme itself. It will be interesting to see if opposition to any passport biometric database is a strong without the Stasi connotations of the "ID cards" name.

Similarly, an expensive project to force ISPs to hand over web communication to be kept in a £12bn central database was abandoned because of privacy and cost concerns.

Although the austerity drive in public spending caused by the recession and bank bail out has been the bugbear of these projects, it has proved a fertile breeding ground for others.

Most notable is the drive to make state data less opaque. Long called for by developers, charities, and the Power of Information Review, the move has now finally gained serious momentum. This has been driven by internet inventor Tim Berners-Lee and expert in artificial intelligence Nigel Shadbolt.

The reason? The government has realised that opening up state data on crime, transport and health allows developers to create services that meet the public need organically – and at much less cost to the public purse.

A classic example came at a test event where developers were allowed access to state data. One created an application that provides information on local bus routes as well as timetables promoted by postcodes. The following weekend Boris Johnson announced a ten year, £20m project to do the same thing.

Opening up public data should also make public services more effective by allowing them to be easily compared – thereby promoting competition on quality of service.

The Tories have realised the value of this too, in bringing Tom Steinberg, founder of MySociety and one of the authors of the original Power of Information Review, on board.

Going forward we can expect to continue to see privacy and cost continuing to shape public sector IT policy. For both these reasons it is likely that the lumbering multi-billion pound government projects of the past are likely to stay there for good.

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