18 September 2013

The computerising of Britain’s patient health records has crashed and burned in a dramatic way.  The Public Accounts Committee has said nearly £10 bn misspent on the now abandoned project will rise as the costs of ineffective supporting networks are taken into account.

More than 150% of the projected completion price was committed before the plug was pulled on what one PAC member says is evidence of systemic failure, proof that agencies seem unable to manage large IT contracts.

These sentiments echo the New Zealand situation, that each project seems to face problems which though previously experienced haven’t become lessons learned, that agencies don’t benefit from what has gone before. Internationally, the success rate of e-government projects is somewhere about 35%.  It seems much the same in New Zealand.

In 2006 when Gauld and Goldfinch wrote In Dangerous Enthusiasms: E-Government, Computer Failure and Information System Development  the casualty list included the Police INCIS computer ($100m), and systems for Health Waikato (17m), and Capital Coast Health ($26m). Some, like the National Library system remained below public consciousness.   Problems have continued despite the moderating intervention of the Gateway Review process – while the FIRST project has been a challenge for Inland Revenue, the Ministry of Education has been embarrassed by Novopay, and problems, illustrated by privacy management concerns at the Ministry of Social Development, lurk elsewhere.

The British Government has faced similar problems including a breakdown of the computers for child and rural support payments, tax credits, passport management, and tracking non national prisoners.

Currently the Public Accounts Committee is also critical of a procurement hub designed for use by 43 English and Welsh Police Forces. What was meant to facilitate purchasing of 80% of these Forces’ needs within 18 months is being used for approximately 2%.

Computers can be as fickle as folk. Resulting problems provide Spectrum ieee with copy for a column on IT hiccups of the Week.  What seems extraordinary is that in an era when big business is keen to partner with government in running traditionally public organisations like hospitals, schools and prisons, there are few examples of major agency computer projects being structured around a profit sharing PPP agreement. Are the chances of success too discouraging?