August 22, 2006

...Learn TDD with Codemanship

Another Day, Another Public Sector IT Fiasco

This story in today's Guardian brings home the message loud and clear that - above all else - project governance must be firmly grounded in reality. iSoft's much-hyped Lorenzo software, designed to be used by 60% of GP's in the NHS - er - around about now time, is allegedly nowhere near fit for that purpose. This is despite all the claims made by iSoft management a year ago that Lorenzo was "a comprehensive core application set capable of meeting the standard common elements of healthcare delivery".

What strikes me is that this could have been even worse. iSoft may look like the proverbial bunch of cowboys right now, but I know for a fact that there were even worse software developers bidding for the same business way back when. The sad fact is that capability to deliver working software is pretty low on the public sectors list of supplier selection criteria. Indeed, even when they know that a supplier habitually fails to deliver the goods, they still hand them extremely large chunks of business. Take EDS, for example; they made a pig's ear of things at the Inland Revenue, at the Child Support Agency and at the Ministry of Defence, and as punishment they've been awarded a massive contract to supply the much-vaunted MoD Defence Information Infrastructure. Methinks someone at EDS HQ knows someone in Whitehall...

The anti-pattern we're witnessing here is unfortunately the rule and not the exception. I have a number of issues with it:

1. When you say to me "10 billion quid over ten years", I automatically assume you're talking about a manned mission to Mars, not a piece of Java code that works out how much income tax I owe. Surely tax, for example, is a computationally trival problem? How many floating point operations does it require to work out how much income tax is owed by 40 million UK taxpayers? I'm guessing my old 800Mhz laptop could do it in a few minutes. And it's not like they have to cope with the volume of transactions that might be expected of, say, a high street bank. How do these projects get sooooooo big?

2. There's never any Plan B. If it were my money - and, hey, some of it actually is my money - then I'd hedge my bets in the early stages. Do you know how much it costs to submit a bid for one of these contracts? Millions. Millions upon millions. Why not, instead of asking a bunch of consultants and lawyers to waste millions writing proposals, just ask a team of developers to build a solution? The you can select the best working solution and pour - what I suspect would be considerably less - money into rolling that out.

3. My biggest problem is that it is sucking billions of pounds out of critical public services. While some hospitals can't afford to keep wards open because of crippling deficits, private sector IT companies grow rich on our tax pound. The scam - and it is scam, be in no doubt about this - works by enticing the public sector managers with offers of lucrative consutling and executive positions. And we see a steady stream - well, since New labour came to power its become more of a torrent - of Whitehall mandarins joining the very same companies who they were awarding contracts to years or months earlier. The conflicts of interest are so obvious, so glaringly obvious, that I'm amazed and ashamed to find myself living in a "civilised democracy" where this sort of thing happens on a daily basis and nobody lifts a finger. (And that includes me - though I'm lifting some fingers now...) It's corruption on a massive scale, and it's costing us all dearly.

As people who are in the know about IT projects and software development, surely we have a moral obligation to do something? But what? What can we do? We took to the streets and protested against the invasion of Iraq, and the government still went ahead and did it. It seems there's nothing we can do that will make the slightest difference.

But the trend is that this will get worse, not better. More and more public money will be siphened into private pockets in the pretence of delivering improved productivity and efficiency through technology. Examples like the now-defunct CSA and the shambolic Tax Credits scheme highlight the real dangers. Not only are massive sums of money poured down the drain, but the quality of public services suffers - and that means that we suffer. These cock-ups have the worst effect on society's most vulnerable people. If our NHS isn't working, it's the poor, the sick and the elderly who will bear the brunt of system failure. People relaxing in nice, comfy, clean private wards in nice, comfy, clean BUPA hospitals won't need to worry much.

As professionals, we must act. This is our country, and if we sit back and say "I know, but what can you do?" then things will get worse. IT is the new infrastructure. If our railways had been crap back in the 19th century, or if our ships had been rubbish, or if our roads had been useless, then arguably there would have been no British Empire. Our economy runs on new wheels these days, and we have to be confident that the new infrastructure is going to be up to the job. Right now, the future for our public services doesn't look rosy.
Posted 14 years, 4 months ago on August 22, 2006