Jan 2008 10

Thar she blows! And we’re paying

The Guardian has surveyed the cash wasted on Whitehall’s abandoned IT projects. According to their survey, the known cost of projects abandoned since 2000 is now £2bn. They highlight:

  • Downing St led projects- "the much-derided £486m computer upgrade at the Child Support Agency (CSA), which collapsed and forced a £1bn claims write-off, and an adult learning programme that was subjected to extensive fraud"
  • Department for Work and Pensions- "responsible for squandering more than £1.6bn by abandoning three major schemes — a new benefit card which was based on outdated technology; the upgrade… which could not handle 1.2m existing claims; and a £140m streamlined benefit payment system that never worked properly"

The article doesn’t detail all the abandoned projects, but notes that £2bn will be a significant underestimate of total costs. That’s because there is no official record covering everything, and also these figures exclude the cost of unworkable systems that are not abandoned per se, but which incur huge modification costs to coax them into some stuttering form of life. Examples include the disastrous NHS Supercomputer, and the hopeless system for the Rural Payments Agency (see many previous blogs for both).

The Guardian figures also exclude two projects abandoned just in the last couple of weeks. The Police Portal was a web-based system for members of the public to report "non-urgent" matters. Despite reportedly working properly, it’s now been abandoned- wasting up to £60m (blogged here).

And just yesterday we learned that a wildly ambitious £1bn system for "integrated prisoner tracking" had been abandoned by the Ministry of Justice. It’s probably safe to assume the Guardian’s £2bn total has racked up a good few notches.

Meanwhile over at the State Child Directorate, they’ve decided to do some more Simple IT Shopping. Schools Minister Jim Knight (see many previous blogs) has been put in charge of negotiating a good deal for broadband with public spirited Internet Service Providers like BT, Virgin Media, and Sky.

Knight reckons a million poor children don’t have access to a computer at home, and they need one for all the usual arm-waving education reasons. So the commissars are going to force all parents to get one, along with broadband. But the cost will be split three ways between the parents, the internet providers and yes, you guessed it, us taxpayers.

Now, see if you can guess what proportion of the cost will be borne by each. In an entertaining article, the Register gives us some clues. Under the excellent headline "Schools minister touts ‘one interweb per child’ pork barrel", it reports:

"The minister said he reckons the negotiations will be "crunchy", but that the government will effectively recruit millions of new customers for broadband providers. Which is jolly sporting of them.

The Department for Education, Schools and Families said it could not provide any more information on the talks, their schedule, or anything else about the plan. "There might be something more next week," a spokesman told us.

A spokesman for BT told us that it "keenly welcomed" the talks, but said they were "at a a very early stage", and refused to comment further."

We’ll just bet he did.

And what’s more, as the Register points out, it’s only a month since Balls was blaming too much time spent on computers for our abysmal showing in the recent OECD reading tests (see this blog). Plus, there could be "child safety concerns in households where parental supervision might not be A-1".

There’s more. Knight promises: "Technologically we can deliver the ability of parents to be able to log into a school intranet, be able to see what homework has been set or look at lesson planning, whether the child is attending, see what the timetable is like, all of that is possible."

Reg says: "Possible, but is it likely given Westminster’s track record on massive IT pork fests? If the Knight and co. can bring down the cost of IT to even anywhere near private sector levels, they’ll have succeeded where dozens of projects have failed before them.

Still, with the stock market headed south, we’re sure the industry will be very glad to be handed the public purse again."

We couldn’t have put it better.

Jan 2008 09

SmallbluebinSome people never learn.  Our report into local government publicity spending revealed a half billion pound industry promoting local councils.  This taxpayer-funded pat-on-the-back for local politicians and their council officers brought outrage from taxpayers, and rightly so.  Help the Aged found that 10% of pensioners have to forego buying food and heating just to pay their council tax.  The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimated that two million taxpayers struggle to pay their council tax bills.  Yet Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council hasn’t listened and they haven’t learned either.  They are still content to ratchet up the public sector wage roster, spending more of your money on their own self-aggrandizing propaganda and not essential services or tax cuts.  So we present to you this week’s non-job of the week:

STOCKPORT METROPOLITAN BOROUGH COUNCIL
Assistant Chief Executive (Communications
)

We’ve lost our voice.

Package up to £90k

ClownsWe are officially a top performing Council and improving well, something we are very proud of, because it confirms we are serving the public of Stockport well. We are also recognised as a leading Council for communications, and are determined to keep it that way: we want the Borough’s achievements to be the talk of the town. That’s where you come in. Reporting directly to the Chief Executive, and as a key member of the community of senior officers, you will head a 20-strong team to lead all aspects of corporate communications: campaigns, reputation management, press relations, on-line content, public consultation and emergencies, working closely with senior councillors and officers. You will need political nous, excellent written and oral presentation skills, a strategic mindset, great judgement, good management skills, and the ability to work under pressure.”

It couldn’t be clearer.  Stockport’s taxpayers are paying ever increasing council tax to employ spin doctors to hype up the council’s reputation and to constantly make up excuses for their own existence.  All this job does is add to the £1.1 million publicity budget at Stockport Council.  They already have 20 spin doctors, why do they need one more?  So when your councillors attempt to justify another council tax rise, you know where the money’s going – to spivs and not services.

So spread the word.  The Manchester Evening News reported the story when we released our report into publicity funding.  Write to them at:

1 Scott Place,
Manchester,
M3 3RN ,
United Kingdom

Or send an email to [email protected]

Additionally you can contact the Stockport Express and Stockport Times by sending an email to [email protected].

Do keep up the pressure.  We are getting a larger media presence and a more intensive grassroots operation.  It’s time to hold these politicians to account and demand lower taxes!

Jan 2008 09

Today the Better Government Initiative, a group of establishment figures with no relation to our campaign, have published their report (PDF) today and have noted the problem of inexperienced political management:

"Ministers are increasingly drawn from a specialist political background with little experience of the management and operation of large organisations, but they are in a position of great influence in relation both to their own Departments and to deliverers of public services. They need appropriate training. Such training should also be available to potential Ministers within the governing party and to members of the Opposition and Select Committees."

It is great that they have acknowledged the problem but their conclusion, that training is needed, is a mistake.  There is a reason why big, private sector, firms wouldn’t dare to hope than an inexperienced candidate can be prepared for the role of chief executive – an analagous role to that of a minister – with training alone.  Managing large organisations is not a skill that has ever been effectively taught through formal training alone.

Beyond that, even if a Minister knows how to do manage large organisations they will also need to know their subject.  Few have an in-depth knowledge of the area in which they’ll be working so can be, at best, informed laymen.  They rarely stay in a department for long so they won’t be able to build up that knowledge over time or build up a close working relationship with their staff.

All these weaknesses make it harder for Ministers to attempt the already close to impossible task of managing big government departments – huge, monopolistic conglomerates.  Training will not improve the situation.  Instead, we need politicians to get out of management and hand services over to professionals – held accountable either by the politicians or, in most cases, the competitive market.

Jan 2008 08

JuniordoctorsThe Telegraph reports a suggestion that the training of doctors should be split off from the NHS:

"Billions of pounds for junior doctors’ training should be taken out of the NHS and given to a new medical education body, an independent inquiry will conclude.

The inquiry into the junior doctor recruitment crisis will recommend moving at least £2.6 billion to a body called NHS Medical Education for England that would oversee training and fund courses, study leave and a proportion of juniors’ salaries."

If healthcare in Britain were delivered by a multitude of competing providers then it might work well to have another set of organisations responsible for assisting in the education of doctors.  You could have a genuine labour market for doctors just as we do for other professions.

However, within the structure of the NHS as it stands separating the educating of doctors from the single organisation responsible for the overwhelming majority of their employment will just weaken the already fragile links between supply and demand for doctors’ labour.  Such a measure would exacerbate the all to common problem of an over or under supply of doctors.

Jan 2008 08

The Telegraph has an excellent leader today describing the absurdities of political management in the NHS:

"There is something faintly absurd in the spectacle of Gordon Brown – who is, after all, a politician, not a medical professional – making detailed recommendations for clinical practice in healthcare.

But in Britain, we have become so accustomed to the concept of a politically driven health system that it no longer seems bizarre to hear such proposals as the deep-cleaning of hospital wards and the prescribing of specific screening procedures being made by the Prime Minister, whose judgments must be no more expert than those of an informed layman."

Our centralised and monopolistic health service does not face the imperative to improve standards and deliver good value that hospitals and insurance funds face in countries like the Netherlands – with its more competitive system.  Customers are not able to abandon the poor service delivered by political management unless they can afford to pay twice – through the tax system and a private channel – for their treatment.

Another thing to note about these interventions is that they are being led not by Alan Johnson but by Gordon Brown.  This is a further centralisation that makes the Prime Minister – and the limited number of priorities that any one man can keep track of – a powerful limitation on the set of issues that politicians can reasonably expect to keep a track of.  Central authorities are unable to keep track of everything that needs doing but are still able to dictate priorities thanks to targets and financial control.  It is easy for them, and by extension the entire system, to neglect important work that isn’t a political priority, like making sure soldiers’ homes are fit for heroes.  Or, put off vital decisions till another day – the late decision to increase nuclear power capacity, for example.

Political management, by ministers with little management experience or subject knowledge, cannot deliver proper standards in public services.  Prime Ministerial management is just about the only way to make things worse.

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