With the government cutting spending across the board in a bid to repair the UK's finances, public IT spending has, like other areas, been affected. Soon after last May's general election, Chancellor George Osborne announced an immediate £95 million cut to the Whitehall IT budget, which saw many projects shelved and others mothballed indefinitely. Further government cuts are ongoing as the government carries out its austerity plan, which from an IT perspective, threatens to hinder progress in some areas.
But that said, past governments have been accused of investing vast sums of money into public IT projects and achieving precious little. An investigation by the Independent last year indicated that £26 billion was spent on failed IT schemes between 1997 and 2010 – money which could help minimise the impacts of the current budget reductions. Significant investment has not always been rewarded with the expected returns, leading some critics sceptical about politicians' ability to take the lead in this area.
The disastrous NHS online records project – which despite the multi- billions invested remains years behind schedule – serves as the most obvious example of prodigal spending from central government during the boom years. Almost a decade after it was established, the National Programme for IT looks like achieving few of its original goals, such as a centralised patient database, and has been derided by critics as a giant white elephant. Other expensive failures include a Defra project designed to allocate subsidies to farms, and an internal messaging system at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.
With this in mind, some may argue that a reduced public IT budget could have indirect positive impacts on government spending. In a sense, less money available to spend could lead to greater forward planning and scrutiny, and ultimately reduced finanacial waste. The government has reiterated its commitment to investing in new IT infrastructure, with the £530 million rural broadband fund and ongoing G-Cloud project emphasising that the Con-Lib coalition recognises the importance of technological innovation and progress. By being increasingly selective about where it chooses to spend public funds – as required by the lack of capital - the government may be able to provide better value for the taxpayer.
Clearly what the government should be seeking to do is look at the more successful public IT projects, and attempt to replicate such achievements in other sectors. While no two initiatives are likely to be the same, adherence to general best practice principles can help to ensure enhanced deployment and service delivery.
BCS, the Chartered Institute of IT, recently highlighted a number of areas where the government has developed award-winning IT programmes, which can serve as positive examples for future spending. In particular, the organisation praised the achievements of Hertfordshire County Council's Online Free School Meals Project, Network Rail's Intelligent Infrastructure System and the development of PSBA, the UK's first public sector shared services network. The organisation also highlighted a number of NHS projects which had offered genuine value for money – including Medical Data Solutions and Services' development of an IT system for the management of the UK Haemophilia Service.
Phillip Webb, chair of the BCS Government Relations Group, commented: "IT project failures are usually the only ones that make the news, leaving examples of successful IT project implementation in the government sector without the public or media recognition that they deserve. As the Chartered Institute for IT, we want to overturn this negative image of government IT by profiling projects that have demonstrated true success at all levels."
Mr Webb said that IT is "at the heart of our society today", adding that it is important to show how we benefit from technology and highlight the successful way it is implemented. "We need to do this to encourage public trust not only in public services which so many of us are now accessing online, but also in the IT profession," he stated.
The expert said the shared services network, school dinner and railway management schemes have proved to be successful both in the improvement of service they have brought to their communities and the professionalism with which they have been implemented. "They offer examples of government programmes that both nationally and locally are introducing IT systems that offer citizens efficient, innovative and, above all, useful services," Mr Webb stated. Crucially, he proposed that business organisations, as well as government, could benefit by following the positive example set when upgrading their IT infrastructures.