Monday, April 16, 2007

Plundering the public sector

Plundering the public sectorIf you ever wondered why the UK government's big IT projects have failed so spectacularly over and over again during the last decade, "Plundering the Public Sector" by David Craig and Richard Brooks will certainly open your eyes. It documents the astonishing naivite of the civil servants who took seriously large IT consulting firms' permanent diagnosis that huge, money-gobbling new computer systems were the answer to every government ill. Project budgets were allowed to double and triple, with resulting systems often thrown out after totally failing to meet their objectives. Departments failed over and over again to learn the lessons of these failures, and moved on to commission even larger disasters.

Craig and Brooks document the various scams used by management and IT consulting firms to boost profits, screwing ever-larger amounts of cash out of the taxpayer. The civil service accounting officers responsible for obtaining value for money had little institutional incentive to do their job properly, with political masters eager for quick tabloid-friendly fixes and convinced the consulting ethic was the ideal way to inject private sector nous into the public sector. Instead we got monopolistic profiteering on a criminal scale:

Overall, just eleven large IT systems companies receive more than 80 per cent of all government systems work. And on the biggest project of them all, Connecting for Health, the programme board have knowingly created just four monopoly IT systems suppliers each with their own reserved area of the country — one supplier even has two areas. So systems are reinvented from scratch, while providers with already proven products are barred from selling to the NHS and told that, if they want to stay in business, they should sell their products abroad. The government has repeatedly claimed that it is trying to push more work to medium-sized companies. In fact, they have done the opposite — the way civil servants have bought consulting services has provided a truly incredible financial bonanza for just a few massive companies at the expense of smaller providers and of the taxpayer. We don't have competition — we have just a few robber barons sharing the spoils among them and not even allowing the scraps to be distributed among the others. Had civil servants been capable buyers, most of the work they bought could probably have been obtained for well under half the price actually paid and many more of the systems would have worked. The systems would have been based on adapting existing working technology from specialist suppliers, rather than on paying a small number of generalists with massive armies of code-monkeys to try lucratively, incompetently and unsuccessfully to rebuild what already existed.

While some of these lessons have been learned at Connecting for Health since the book was published in 2006, this is still a shocking look at the abuse of IT by government on a financial scale that boggles the mind.

No comments: