Yes Minister – Sir Humphrey’s exclusive views on Government IT procurement

(We will return again to last week’s Public Administration Committee’s report on IT projects and procurement in UK Government, which contains much that is interesting .But in the meantime, we are privileged to have the transcript of a recent informal meeting held in the Minister for Administrative Affairs’ private office...)

- Humphrey, do come in. Bernard and I were just talking about this committee report on IT procurement. Shocking incompetence, shocking.  Government has been paying far too much, and there’s a cartel of suppliers, some say.  Something must be done Humphrey!

- I agree Minister. Something must indeed be done.

- And it’s disgraceful, the people responsible for these dreadful contracts and projects need to be identified and action taken. They should be dismissed in the most serious cases.

- Again Minister, I must agree. In fact, dismissal is probably too good for them. Make an example of them I say!

- Really Humphrey? You surprise me. I thought you would have been defending your colleagues?

-No Minister. I believe that the PM should take strong action against those responsible - but it is rare indeed for a Minister to be sacked because of a failing IT system.

- Ministers? What has this got to do with Ministers? I was talking about the civil servants who buy the IT and run these disastrous projects!

- You do amuse me at times, Minister. You don’t really think it is civil servants who come up with these huge programmes do you? It wasn’t a civil servant who decided we should all have ID Cards, or that we should build the NHS IT system - the largest IT programme ever planned in the world. Even Stalin wasn’t quite so ambitious in his vision of central planning ...

- But it is the civil servants who buy the IT.

- Yes, but the problem is the Ministers decide on policy without any consideration of whether it is feasible from a technology point of view.  They design huge national programmes that by definition only the largest firms can possibly implement, and only then often by using untried technology.  And then they’re surprised when they go wrong.

- But Humphrey...

- No, let me go on Minister. Then we have a change of Ministers and the whole programme changes. I was in the Home Office - I was only a humble SCS 2 in those days of course – in the early days of ID Cards. We had 4 Home Secretaries and every one had a different idea of what the ID Card was for!  And every time there was a change of mind, the whole shape of the solution and therefore the IT changed. Chaos!

- But Humphrey, these projects were all under the last Government.  We’re doing much better. And don’t you agree that we should be using smaller, more agile suppliers?

- Of course, where possible.  Being very fair, there are some valid points in this report, Minister.  And your Government does seem to be launching fewer IT programmes. But did The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions think about this when he invented Universal Credit? What are we trying to do – merge tax and benefits, the two biggest IT systems in civil Government?  You don’t really think a nice little firm - Colin’s Computers from Clapham let’s say - is going to lead that work, do you?

- But Universal Credit is a great policy idea Humphrey. Everyone thinks so.

- Yes, I agree, but did anyone do a full IT feasibility analysis before it was put forward or agreed as a policy? No? I thought not.

- Humphrey, you’ve made your point. But what about the stories in this report of people paying £3000 for a single PC?

- With the greatest of respect Minister, that is nonsense. I think you will find that price includes preparing the machine to meet all the standards we require in the Department, including security and data protection – and I seem to remember you increased the requirements in that area quite recently. It includes the cost of the 27 different software elements, and all the support and maintenance, and disposal costs. Again, if you would like to ask Colin how much he will charge for that...

- Humphrey, I’m not going to win on this one, am I?

- No Minister. You’re not.

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  1. Final Furlong:

    Very good Peter and, unfortunately, very true…

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