back to article Wasted billions of government IT spending exposed

The massive increase in government IT spending under New Labour has had no impact on the productivity of the public sector, a new analysis reveals. Work by Jerry Fishenden, who was until recently Microsoft's national technology officer for the UK and is now a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics, shows that …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    The end is near...

    I for one think that they will not be in power probably for the next 8 years. Anyone disagree?

  2. John Murgatroyd

    So what.

    It matters little which bunch of elected political animals hold "power".

    The real government is the non-elected civil service.

    And the above article does not address the real issue: Is the It spend intended to increase "productivity" (itself hard to define within a government) or to increase the amount of information held [about the citizens] and enable faster retrieval of same. Many government forms duplicate the information gathered and it is hard to avoid the idea that many are just a form of data trawling.

    Within government the productivity of the information gathered may be considered to be much higher than an outside party may allocate to it.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    IT Angle

    Are they...

    ...missing the point? In the timescale studied, the amount of stuff to do on the internet has increased probably in similar line to the spending. More computers = more people surfing

  4. ThomH

    @The end is near...

    I'm not sure Cameron is different or competent enough to win twice, but I guess it'll depend on how quickly Labour can shake off the memories of, ummm, everything they've done since David Blunkett became Home Secretary. Or at least since the invasion of Iraq.

  5. Tom 7

    Never ask the fox to count the chickens!

    Hello - you're the richest computer company in the world - can you help us with our IT?

    Not really but we can show you how we became the richest IT company in the world: Upgrade everything and upgrade again..

    IT will always cost a fortune when contracted out - until the government has lawyers as good as the 'supplier' they will always win financially.

    An important comparison for this would almost certainly be private sector productivity against IT expenditure. Most companies IT expenditure has gone up 1000's of percent but I dont see thousands of cars/planes/cabbages out there. Just more PC's running desktop software that allows you to pass the problem on to someone else in 47 ill chosen fonts.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    When detailed research fails ...

    ... just sling a graph on your blog.

    As AC 14:16 has already pointed out, the methodology behind this was stillborn.

    Most of us here probably agree that IT expenditure is yea above what it should be, but that's no excuse for publishing an article based on a lacklustre blog entry.

    Indeed, his wikipedia page describes a 2005 article of his as "the first public commentary on [ID Cards] by a recognised industry figure".

    The man's a self-publicist. Let's leave it that.

  7. Eddy Ito

    Wasted billions...

    That's all? They're doing much better than I figured. What's a few G£ among friends, nee taxpayers. It's all very simple, allow me to explain this to you.

    [Dons policy-wonk hat]

    Just think how far productivity would have fallen without all of that spending! There would have been crime in the streets, rampant unemployment and banks would have failed everywhere! Is that really what you want?

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Are they...

    Um, public use of the internet isn't funded from the exchequer. The vast majority of government IT spending in the last 10 years is (overpriced) databases and networks.

  9. William 9

    More strength to Jerry's arm

    I think this is a potent and probably damning piece of evidence. I founded the company (Kable) from which Jerry Fishenden derives the spend data. I'm kicking myself that we never thought to compare it against ONS productivity data (I wasnt even aware it existed).

    This is, as John M rightly says, more about Whitehall execution than about party-political Punch and Judy shows which constantly distract us from the real action and real expenditure.

    I think El Reg is absolutely right to pick this up from Jerry's blog and make it a news story. What's lacking in this story is substantive comment from HMG.

    The curmudgeonly John D does Jerry a disservice. When that 2005 Scotsman article appeared every other company was sucking up to government and the Home Office via the trade association Intellect to try to get contracts for the benighted ID Scheme. But Microsoft (for all its many and glaring faults) had canned its centralised ID architecture in 2001. So it had nothing to offer. So Jerry spoke out, and was pretty much ostracised by senior officials who wanted to stay in groupthink mode. Other honest scientists in other companies thought the same. Some muttered but were silenced (IBM etc) others remained silent. (Stand by for endless corporate "we didnt think it was a good idea either" starting soon after the next election)

    So whoever wrote Jerry's Wikipedia entry (it may or may not have been him) knows what they're saying, and has it spot on.

  10. Anonymous Coward

    Public Sector summed up

    I hope I don't offend any public sector workers out there... this isn't meant as a sweeping statement for all, just a reflection on my experience.

    But... when I finished university and found my first job in IT, I still had friends who knew very little about computers, networking, software, development etc etc. Those friends are now working at various levels of IT within the public sector (councils and education). The friends I have that actually are knowledgeable in the ways of the church of Mr Babbage are all working in private companies or working for themselves (or as freelancers/contractors).

    To me, that speaks volumes about why IT in the public sector is failing. I'm not saying everything should be privatised, but I do think the public sector should be run more along the lines of private organisations.

    Mine's the one with the final salary pension and automatic payscale incremements in the pocket (based on my time festering in the organisation and not on performance)

  11. Scott Herter

    A waste... Really?

    "The massive increase in government IT spending under New Labour has had no impact on the productivity of the public sector, a new analysis reveals."

    What do you mean "no impact on productivity"? The new IT infrastructure has allowed the government to lose more data more quickly then ever before! They can get bad data in to the system and in to your credit report before you know it. How the heck are they measuring productivity?

    "Work by Jerry Fishenden, who was until recently Microsoft's national technology officer for the UK and is now a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics, shows that for all the billions thrown into IT, the UK economy has not benefited at all."

    Oh, well, yeah, it has done nothing for the economy. Not that it was supposed to or anything.

    Mines the one with the WiFi indicator on it...

  12. Sir Runcible Spoon

    Spend the same money on the people instead

    When I have a contract, it is usually pretty lucrative with no benefits whatsoever - and if I don't perform the longest they have to wait is the next renewal (<3months) or if I'm really crap then it's a weeks notice.

    That kind of gives you a daily incentive to do you best.

    Now, take away 3/4 of that renumeration, throw in a tonne of holiday pay, training vacations and a some piss poor management. Easy street in some senses, but I reckon good public sector workers must get pretty stressed with frustration at the inability to progress and improve, not just themselves but their environment. We all know how beauracratic* is.

    Now, where is the incentive to do your best on a daily basis?

    Surprised at these findings? Hardly. Depressed? Most assuredly.

    *all speeling mistakes are my own, and no gramma nartsee is gonna tell me different.

  13. Trevor 7

    Anyone else notice the interesting relationship

    between the ICT expenses and the productivity?

    Productivity goes down when ICT expenses go up.

    Productivity goes up when expenses go down.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    @William 9

    May I award you the OBN.

    Excuse me while I wheel out the lies, dammed lies.. quote.

    Not that I'm a fan of govt IT spending or anything, but I think I don't think this article has much substance, it looks like an MBA has found himself a metric.

  15. Gareth Morgan

    Quis custodiet... ?

    My own experience, sadly now lengthy, seems to imply an inversely proportional relationship between need and specification. Where there is a real urgency for a solution then government procurement is prepared to listen to new ideas but in the absence of that need then the relationship is simply one where the buyer tells the supplier what the solution is to be and no new thinking is welcome.

    This does not lead to innovation.

  16. Anonymous Coward

    I bet their chums from Redmond don't think it's wasted

    Microsoft have made Billions out of the British tax payer to provide sub-standard crapware & our inept politicos just think it's brilliant. "Ohhh...Exchange 2007 only runs on 64bit h/ problem, we'll just rip out the thousands of perfectly fine 32bit machines and buy thousands of new one's because we don't have the mental capacity or the intellectual nouse to realise were being shafted." "Your products don't problemo...just bring in more servers then....we can always build bigger data centres...." " Vista won't run on our 2 year old PC's.....that fiyyyyyyyne....We'll just get some more......Alistair.....where's your wallet"


  17. Terry 6 Silver badge

    You can't always trust these sorts of figures, but...... does seem as if most government endeavour over the last decade or so has been about building big monolithic bureacracies where smaller public services used to be*. So much of the IT spending is probably just a way to manage these massive agencies.

    *e.g. Giving inspecting local child minders to natiional OFSTED and giving much of the work of local Trading Standards to national "Consumer Direct", then , well, I'll just quote it............

    "On 1st October the Welsh, Scottish and National Consumer Councils merged with Postwatch and energywatch to form Consumer Focus, the new champion for consumers' interests in England, Scotland, Wales and, for post, Northern Ireland.

    And so it goes.

  18. Christian Berger

    Computers don't improve productivity... least not if the users cannot program them. What use is a computer if you cannot program it?

  19. Syneil

    Civil servant's response to Sir Runcible Spoon


  20. A J Stiles

    This has got to stop

    This. Has. Got. To. Stop.


    We need a Ministry for IT. We also need (unless we are going to make Open Source mandatory; which would be no bad thing, but realistically is probably a demand too far) a standard procurement policy that unconditionally demands full Source Code, Modification Rights and the specifications of saved file formats alongside any software supplied to any Government department. Such measures are necessary, in order that the Government's data -- and **our** money -- shall never be held to ransom by a private corporation.

    Note that that in no way excludes the likes of Microsoft from supplying the Government; it just means they will have to supply Source Code and documentation explaining saved file formats, along with more generous licencing terms permitting modification and inspection of the code. Almost like Open Source, in effect; only more expensive.

  21. N2

    @ The end is near...

    Agree but trouble is, 8 years is not enough to correct the mess these toss pots have created

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    I doubt not's incompetence

    .. but the metric used to measure productivity here seems artificial, and it's unclear if it's measuring bang-per-buck (in which case absolute productivity would still be up since absolute spending is up more than the decline in the productivity *ratio*), and even if absolute productivity is down, it's a relevant question whether the situation really calls for increased spending just to maintain the status quo.

    Given the large amount of money the government is investing in social engineering, anti-terror measures, internet surveillance etc., even proponents of all these draconian schemes recognise that they're long-term projects that won't improve productivity in the short term by most metrics. So the article is really only restating the obvious, but using dodgy statistics.

    How about some comparisons to other countries and/or to the private sector? As much as I'd like to see the current parliament strung up by their bollocks, and corruption and incompetence in the civil service tackled in some way that involves baseball bats and boiling water, the poorly-researched drivel displayed in this article isn't the way forward.

  23. BOBSta

    Systems analysis?

    There's no point computerising something if you're just going to recreating the existing procedures. It's the procedures that are inefficient, probably bogged down in bureaucracy and keeping overpaid numpties in their jobs. Look at the procedures, and optimise them for the benefit of everyone!

  24. Mike Bell 2

    Why is anyone surprised?

    I worked on a UK Government project once. It consisted (essentially) of re-creating the existing paper-based system and procedures, just on a computer. All suggestions by the techies that a splash of competent business analysis would pay handsome dividends fell on deaf ears.

    The system was obsolete before it was installed.

  25. adrianww

    Also, don't forget...

    ...that many of the large-scale Government IT projects are hideously over-resourced in the middle management and project management roles. The NPfIT (or Connecting for Health, or Cocking-up the NHS Computer Systems project) was a case in point. From my limited experience dealing with this project and people on it, I would reckon that they could have shed maybe a third of the external contract staff without doing any harm - most of those being middling (and meddling!) project management types who didn't seem to add any value, but who did muck things about so much that it made it difficult for the good project managers and engineering staff to do a decent job.

  26. Anonymous Coward


    The way it seems to work within UK (un)civil (un)servitude is a bit like this:

    have flaky physical system that does not work too well but it's faults are well known

    have IT solution imposed from above

    it too is a bit flaky but it's faults are unknowns

    endorse both systems to run simultaneously with view to phase out the physical system (never realized as nobody really wants to - even in its flakiness it is too good. Besides, we've realised that official reports can be garnered without our knowledge direct (yes! direct!) from the information we put in. Now that is well dodgy as we have well established means to cook information in the physical system so it reads exactly what we want it to read)

    dependency on IT systems wanes and dependency on physical system waxes gloriously

    Now, of course, everyone is on a tightrope with razor sharp edges one side or the other. Information in the physical system has to be robust to tweaking and information gleamed from the IT system has to confirm precisely the information cooked in physical system.

    Then everyone gets a sore head?

  27. John Bridges`

    Not an apologist but ...

    Ok so on the face of it this looks pretty dire. However, without more meaningful data productivity is a hidden variable in this context.

    We can see its flat - or marginally negative - what that doesn't tell us is "If we took away IT spending over the period would productivity be strongly negative ?"

    i.e. Its easy to draw the conclusion that Govmt IT spending has had no impact, but that conclusion might very well be wrong. The information load on government has gone up dramatically over the past decade and if we were left in the dark-ages of paper and pencil I'd put a pretty strong one way bet that the red line would be massively negative.

  28. Anonymous Coward

    @ William 9

    "I think this is a potent and probably damning piece of evidence."

    Ceteris paribus? It isn't evidence of anything beyond people wildly accepting a report simply because it confirms their opinions (lots of commentards here clearly don't have science degrees).

    There's no methodology and no error analysis. No conclusion can be drawn from the graph whatsoever.

    "So whoever wrote Jerry's Wikipedia entry (it may or may not have been him) knows what they're saying, and has it spot on."

    The claim that his article was the "first public commentary on the system by a recognised industry figure, opened up constructive debate on an important topic" has three citations: two are from a website your company either owns or set up; the third is to a pdf that doesn't mention Mr Fishenden at all.

    The claim itself is absurd as the debate had been underway for years and included people considerably more high profile than Fishenden. I know that Ross Anderson had spoken out against the NIR before the Scotsman article, and I sincerely doubt that anyone is foolish enough to believe that an article in that newspaper is suddenly going to open debate amongst academics and politicians.

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I work in Public Sector IT - The waste is sickening

    I joined a quango last year to head up IT having spent all my career in the Private sector. My job brief was to introduce Private sector approaches.

    I'm making swingeing cuts in expenditure, I reckon I'll achieve over 50% savings within 12 months. The best bit is at the same time I'm actually recruiting talented staff to enable the the savings drive.

    The legacy contracts in place, with suppliers and third parties are grotesque...the biggest winners having been private sector organisations who take public sector for an absolute ride.

    Government purchasing schemes such as CATALIST are nonsense, in my own experience they work out more expensive and deny local smaller and competitive companies from getting a look in.

    I'm very proud that the quango I work for are restructuring to give the taxpayer value for money, I do believe after restructuring that it will fulfill its remit cost effectively.

    Perhaps a Quango bonfire isn't the answer, just common sense restructuring.

  30. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    @AC 14:44

    Polite applause.

    I cannot envy you with the legacy problems. The pitfalls and snares are likely to be many.

    Nonetheless progress can be made but such progress is usually very hard fought for and vested interests of previous or incumbents is to ensure change is thwarted (otherwise they can look quite bad or have a strong fear of looking bad).

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