The UK Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s annual report (pdf) assessing the state of 133 major government projects that have material, long-lasting impact for the public, was published earlier this month. Among the 133 projects are 29 information and communication technology projects worth some £10 billion ($13 billion) over their projected lifetimes. While the government is counting on these technical projects to achieve significant “cost savings and efficiencies” in the way it operates, possibly saving as much as £35 billion per year, the results suggest it may be waiting awhile for those savings to appear.
Like last year, no major information technology project was judged by the Authority as currently being “red,” which means that the project appears unachievable. However, seven were assessed as “amber/red,” which means the successful delivery of the project is in doubt, and another 14 were considered to be “amber,” indicating that, while successful delivery is feasible, there are significant issues that require management attention to ensure the project’s success. The other eight are “amber/green,” indicating that successful delivery is probable, but constant attention is needed to prevent risks from threatening delivery. No project was rated “green.”
Many of the information technology and communication projects in doubt or needing major management attention are intended to deliver improved digital services across the UK government. As Australia has discovered, however, placing technology at the heart of government is a good idea in theory that is much harder to implement in practice.
For instance, the UK initiated its Government Digital Service in 2011 to much acclaim, and publicly touts its job as the “digital transformation of government.” However, the transformation has recently run into trouble. A key project called Gov.uk Verify, which is intended to provide UK citizens a secure way to prove who they are when online to government agencies, has seen its rating drop from an amber/green to amber over the past year. The project has failed to meet its planned take-up objectives, and probably won’t for several more years at least.
Two other government digital service projects, Government as a Platform and Common Technology Services, are also rated amber in the IPA report. These two projects are vital to creating the core digital systems infrastructure and processes that could be used by various departments across government. If these projects stumble, the digital transformation of government is at a huge risk of fading into oblivion.
The amber rating for all three of these government service delivery projects means that strong management attention and support is required to achieve success. Unfortunately, the wrong type of attention seems to be being given. According to a report published in Global Government Forum, former senior members of the digital service, which has seen much turnover, said the transformation efforts are succumbing to a “toxic culture” being fostered by politicians and senior civil servants intent on maintaining power in their siloed departments. Until sharing of power, and especially of the information that underpins that power, is the norm, digitalization transformation of government will remain merely theoretical.
There are other types of technical projects that are cause for concern on the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s review list as well. One of continuing concern is the Department for Work and Pensions’ controversial Universal Credit project. Begun in 2010, the project aims to integrate six main benefits (e.g., housing, tax, and unemployment benefits) into one single payment. Originally scheduled to be completed by 2017, it won’t be fully implemented until 2023 at the earliest because of longstanding information technology difficulties.
Even though Universal Credit is rated amber, it will never be allowed to fail, a recent National Audit Office report indicates. The effort may end up costing more to administer than the current benefits system but the Audit Office says there is no “realistic alternative but to continue.” So far, some £1.9 billion has been spent implementing Universal Credit, and UK taxpayers can expect a lot more to be spent before it is declared fully operational.
Information technology projects that could impact Brexit next March were highlighted as possibly being in trouble by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority as well. For example, the Home Office’s Digital Services at the Border project aims to replace a number of obsolete legacy IT systems in order to better automate UK border controls. However, the project is currently rated as “amber-red” and may not be ready in time for Brexit, according to a parliamentary report.
There are, of course, many more than the 29 projects listed under the information technology and communications category in the Authority’s report that have a large IT component to them. For instance, the Home Office’s Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme and the Ministry of Defense’s Marshall Air Traffic Management project are heavily IT dependent, but the former is categorized by the Authority as an infrastructure project while the latter is considered a defense project. This makes the true state of UK government IT hard to track, and there are many more government IT projects that are not reviewed by the Authority. (Both of the above projects, by the way, are rated red.)
Amid all the gloomy news, however, there was one ray of sunshine. The Authority report did say that the Department of Work and Pensions’ Hosting Services Refresh project was successfully rolled out this past year and “entered business as usual.” That’s at least some progress.