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Government IT: dysfunctional, damaging and sometimes dangerous

10 December 2021

The PAC today reports concerns on the number of complex, large-scale digital programmes that “we continue to see fail” with serious impact on “important government services and taxpayers’ money”. Failures in NHS England’s efforts to transform primary care services potentially put patients at risk of serious harm and the Committee recently reported on the Home Office’s programme to replace the police national computer: delayed by at least five years and more than £400 million over budget so far, spurring senior Police to declare a loss of confidence in the Home Office.

The Government points to some recent success stories, such as the COVID-19 furlough schemes, but the Committee says “most of these are not large-scale transformational programmes and we remain sceptical of the ability to succeed in this area”. It is “clear that government faces significant long-term barriers to successful digital change including lack of digital skills and capability” among senior leadership, and a wider scarcity of specialist digital, data and technology skills across both the public and private sectors.

Departments “fail to understand the difference between improving what currently exists and real digital transformation” and the resulting failures to modernise, even after massive time and cost overruns, means Government continues to rely on embedded ‘legacy’ systems - some of which date back to the 70s - for important services such as managing the UK’s borders and paying the State Pension.

Chair's comments

Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said:

“The short-termism that plagues so much critical policy delivery is nowhere more evident than in Government’s staggering efforts to bring crucial, national IT systems into the current century and up to functional speed. The merry-go-round of Ministers and Permanent Secretaries means no one remains long enough to see through major, essential major digital change programmes.

Instead we hobble on with dysfunctional, damaging and sometimes dangerous systems that devour precious resources but aren’t protecting our borders, aren’t helping emergency services save lives, don’t support our national defence or the personnel who risk their lives in service of it and don’t help catch the people falling through the gaping holes in our welfare safety net. Nation, citizen and taxpayer deserve much better than this and we’ll continue to challenge departments in front of us until they get it.”

Further information

Image: PA