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Comment: Don’t write off the public sector IT disaster yet



Three troubled go-lives come with old lessons for the new government.

Recent implementations of IT systems provide reminders that, despite ministers’ confidence, the spectre of public sector IT disaster still lurks. The danger is particularly acute when systems have a high public profile - or are being implemented by staff demoralised and under pressure from other reforms.                                  

Matthew Hancock, the new Cabinet Office minister, boasted last week that "Before 2010, two thirds of major projects ran over time and over budget. We now have a project delivery function, with central leadership and oversight provided by the Major Projects Authority. It’s driving forward a culture of better management information with clear lines of accountability.

"It’s the approach that delivered us the Olympics, and now it’s being put to work across the government’s £488 billion major projects portfolio. Last year better project management saved the taxpayer £3.3 billion."

The first glitch occurred earlier this month when the government picked the start of the holiday season to announce that the view driving record website was replacing the paper counterpart driving licence. The AA reported that large numbers of people wishing to hire a car were confused by the site, and its requirement for a national insurance number in order to get a ‘licence check code’ to give to car hire companies.

It also said that a passport number would be more suitable. Despite apparently being overwhelmed in its first days, the site now appears to be working normally.


Meanwhile in the very same week, the delayed go-live of the NHS in England’s new e-referral service, replacing the old choose and book, also experienced difficulties. A "summary of known problems/issues" report published by the Health and Social Care Information Centre listed 33 "issues" including problems gain access to work lists and viewing referral histories. Again, the service now appears to have stabilised.

More serious problems seem to be afflicting the much less well-known, but politically sensitive, system through which the Ministry of Justice’s Legal Aid Agency pays law firms. The Client Cost and Management System (CCMS) was due to come into mandatory use this autumn, despite much criticism of its pilot implementations. Full go-live has now been postponed until February next year.


Part of the problem with this implementation is that it coincides with a crisis in relations between solicitor firms and the government over legal aid cuts, with lawyers considering direct action in protest. Experience of past IT disasters - for example at London Ambulance Service and the Passport Agency - suggests that the middle of an industrial dispute is not the right time to implement new systems that require goodwill to deal with teething troubles or worse. (Lawyers are not the only unhappy party: the Ministry of Justice easily tops the current list of sick-days per person in a Whitehall department.)

Of course none of these three incidents is on the scale of past government system failures - or glitches such as RBS’s loss of banking data last week - but they are a useful reminder that the reputation of public sector IT remains fragile.

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