back to article Government and the latest tech don't mix, says UK civil servant of £11B ESN mess

Earlier this year, the prime minister launched the UK government's plan to cement the nations place as "a science and technology superpower by 2030." However, in the opinion of one of the government's most senior civil servants, the public sector and cutting-edge technology mix about as well as oil and water. Speaking to …

  1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    UK government's plan to cement the nations place as "a science and technology superpower by 2030."

    And where, we ask, are the ministers with the qualifications and capability to do that?

    I suppose thy might bring back Matt Hancock. After all he had his own app, didn't he. That should be good enough.

    1. codejunky Silver badge

      @Doctor Syntax

      "And where, we ask, are the ministers with the qualifications and capability to do that?"

      Isnt the issue the ministers who try to? However many ministers we have they can not be qualified nor have understanding in everything people do and every subject. They are few and we are many, they have out of date information and we are doing our own things all the time. Central control restricts and slows down development

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: @Doctor Syntax

        I'd like a minister with sufficient background to ask "Does that even make sense or is it another Homegrown Unbeatable BRItish Solution?".

        1. codejunky Silver badge

          Re: @Doctor Syntax

          @Doctor Syntax

          "I'd like a minister with sufficient background to ask "Does that even make sense or is it another Homegrown Unbeatable BRItish Solution?"."

          Of course. But then I would like ministers having a background in being able to manage money, power supplies, border control or many things. I dont disagree with you, only to point out the futility of the central control even if they wernt so hopeless.

      2. LybsterRoy Silver badge

        Re: @Doctor Syntax

        No. The real issue is where are the Civil Servants who have the qualifications, capability, experience and attitude to do that. Actually forget qualifications, I don't care what a bit of paper says.

  2. Will Godfrey Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Noty again!

    Rycroft assured MPs he did not "anticipate more write-offs at this stage."

    I regard that statement as an absolute guarantee that there will be very many more write-offs.

  3. elsergiovolador Silver badge

    Hot Air

    Earlier this year, the prime minister launched the UK government's plan to cement the nations place as "a science and technology superpower by 2030."

    Earlier this year prime minister needed yet another feel good slogan, cheers and pats on the back.

    This government is all about hot air, doing nothing but protecting the interests of the rich.

    Fortunately they are on the way out.

    1. Disgusted Of Tunbridge Wells Silver badge

      Re: Hot Air

      > Fortunately they are on the way out.

      No they aren't. They've been in power since 1997 and they are showing no signs of giving it up any time soon. An alternative to the Uniparty is unlikely to break through in one election cycle.

      1. codejunky Silver badge

        Re: Hot Air

        @Disgusted Of Tunbridge Wells

        Somehow you got downvotes for that. I guess the charade of difference will continue.

      2. IanRS

        Re: Hot Air

        It does not matter which party is calling out directions, because the same background bureaucracy service (they stopped being civil a long time ago) is driving.

        1. sedregj
          Alien

          Re: Hot Air

          Yes Minister

      3. Mast1

        Re: Hot Air

        With Cameron before one election (2010?) having said that he saw himself as the "heir to Blair", and this past weekend we have had Starmer implying that he sees himself as the heir to Thatcher, then the comment above has quite a lot of mileage.

    2. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: Hot Air

      Earlier this year, the prime minister launched the UK government's plan to cement the nations place as "a science and technology superpower by 2030."

      Earlier this year the prime minister remembered that he had friends who own science & technology companies, and so would benefit from being given some government-funded work.

  4. Disgusted Of Tunbridge Wells Silver badge

    Government is a terrible way to do stuff, so let's vote for more of it.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Airwave might be more expensive than a sim only third party carrier contract

    but the infrastructure is also fundamentally designed to be reliable and resilient.

    there is enough redundancy built in to most of the system to actually keep it running, and with portable base stations and self relaying capabilities - it's just a different beast.

    It really shouldn't be a private company beholden to foreign debt manufacturers... but the cost would still be alot higher than many expect.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Airwave might be more expensive than a sim only third party carrier contract

      It really shouldn't be a private company beholden to foreign debt manufacturers

      Consider things like electricity generation and supply, gas supply, water supply and sewage treatment...all that critical national infrastructure stuff...we probably shouldn't be beholden to foreign ownership for that, but here we are :-/

      1. katrinab Silver badge
        Megaphone

        Re: Airwave might be more expensive than a sim only third party carrier contract

        Kemble Water Holdings' (Thames Water) nine page long audit report published last week shows why that was a very bad idea.

        The press are talking mostly about the stuff on the first page where they warn about the fact that the company is in grave danger of going bust, but the stuff on the 5th and 6th pages about prosecutions for environmental crimes is also important.

    2. Graham 25

      Re: Airwave might be more expensive than a sim only third party carrier contract

      "It really shouldn't be a private company beholden to foreign debt manufacturers."

      At the time Airwave started ( prior to that it started out as the Public Sector Radio Communications Project), there was only a single UK TETRA manufacturer - Phillips/Pye which became Simoco in Cambridge. The alternatives were Nokia and Motorola.

      The UK government had exactly zero idea on how to design, deliver or maintain anationwide network, so any suggestion that the public sector could do any of that is laughably stupid.

      In the end, the HMG procurement process ground on, and Motorola were selected primarity as neither Simoco or Nokia were prepared to put up with the bizarre drivel from HMG procurement on commercial terms or delivery demands.

      Simoco went out of business despite some great systems deals with ambulance services and Nokia had enough of HMg and wouldnt sell in the UK to the public sector.

      And as we know, TETRA never really delivered and the 3G auctions stripped all the invetment capital out fo the comms market for almost a decade with billions straight to HMG and the UK comms base destroyed when by bought foreign across the board.

      I was in a meeting with Motorola and a certain branch of HMG over a large radio project where we had designed a rather specialised system exclusively for certain *Cough Cough* UK services, and of course the UK gov't wanted to pay a fraction of the price that the system cost so were trying to strong arm Motorola into committing private development resource to the project o drop the price - despite the fact that the system wouyld never be permitted to be sold to anyone else.

      Literally, to the HMG negotiating teams faces, our team including Motorola laughed at them and told them they were just being stupid (not silly, but actually stupid). The client was shocked and before they could start blustering, the Motorola VP got out one of the new Motorola Startac mobiles which was the latest hot potato in small mobile flip-phones, and plonked it on the table. He told them that the people part of the development effort for that handset was half of the development effort they were asking Motorola to spend, on a system with about 25 handsets and a few replacements a year. The VP told them they can get that contract revenue in the mobile phone shops on Oxfprd Street in December and January so they are being stupid if they think that makes a good business case for anyone. I always recall that meeting as it was the first time I had seen a negotiator walk away from HMG and tell them they werent worth the hassle, and to shove their order.

      The project died at the Project Definition phase and was never implemented. As it turned out, Motorola made the absolutely right decision, as the Good Friday Agreement resulted in all sorts of things being cancelled and this one would have been at the top of the list had it proceeded at any price.

      There is no UK base on the technology front for Airwave, and the public sector cant do sh*t on anything remotely technical, and when it comes to service delivery, can anyone seriously suggest the morons who deliver HMRC services could do a safety critical network like Airwave ? Public Sector procurement really isnt worth the hassle these days.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Airwave might be more expensive than a sim only third party carrier contract

        Why is a public body a ridiculous notion?

        What is it about a private company being set up that is fundamentally different to a public body being set up that means that only one of them can learn?

        I'll absolutely agree that we need to have a technical branch of the civil service, that has the authority to push back on stupid policy changes every time we change a minister and get another loon in charge, and we need to have much more cross party support for long term projects of all sorts... but that's not a public/private thing - it's a FPTP/governmental instability thing.

        "TETRA never really delivered"

        Really? TETRA has delivered reliable communications for our emergency services nationwide, and with a common infrastructure it's possible to ship in, for example, police from all over the country to London for special events (olympics or riots) and have all of their comms equipment work, and be part of the same talk groups etc. as everyone else.

        The big thing TETRA doesn't do is modern data; the bandwidth is laughable, and that's where the ESN should have been deployed.

        But again - that requires a public body with the authority to push back against the fickle policy changes of individual ministers on a carousel, and to actually demand long term (which requires cross party) planning. It doesn't matter who is doing the work if the requirements change every time the coffee machine is refilled.

        1. Graham 25

          Re: Airwave might be more expensive than a sim only third party carrier contract

          "Why is a public body a ridiculous notion?"

          Because its full of people not remotely competent enough to get a job with responsibility in the private sector - and nobody in the public sector is ever held liable for their mistakes. Its full of people who are lazy and incompetent. Look at any service provided by the public sector and every single one of them fails and fails and fails and never learns. A public body is largely unaccountable, incapable of taking action quuickly without a forest of Sir Humphreys wanting paper by the tonne - and thats before politics even rears its ugly head. The whole organisation is stuck in the 19th century.

          TETRA never delivered - because it was supposed to offer an upgrade path to data - and never did. the idea of TATRA was interoperability across networks, That never really happened as HMG took so long that the supplier base ceased to exist. If lighting were left to the public sector, large swathes of the country would still have gas lamps. Handsets are ridiculously expensive because they arent a mass production item. After nearly 35 years,, you still cant get TETRA underground in London, despite the demands of Kings Cross Enquiry in 1988

          Its not about authority, although I do agree about the ever changing requirements. The problem is the piblic sector is way too slow at everything it does and whats worse, the staff wouldnt go any faster even if given the authority. The staff are basically useless in a modern environment.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Airwave might be more expensive than a sim only third party carrier contract

            So your complaint is that public bodies aren't given the authority, or responsibility, for their actions - and you don't propose changing that, but claiming it's because they've never had it and therefore can't possibly cope with it...

            Let's assume you are correct and one of the requirements to take a public sector role is a full lobotomy... why not have AW as a "private" company that's wholly owned by UK.gov?

            Why the hell do we always want to push tax money into offshore accounts rather than having the profit from these companies returned to the treasury as sole shareholder. That would also allow said private company to concentrate on long term profits, rather than investor numbers each week.

            Let's then assume that you aren't correct and ask what kind of organisation we'd want to create to manage such critical infrastructure.

  6. Kane
    Joke

    "And where, we ask, are the ministers with the qualifications and capability to do that?"

    Well, we got a Minister for AI now, does that help?

    Ah! Just noticed you've mentioned qualifications, sorry, can't help you there!

    Damn! Also noticed you mentioned capability as well! Looks like we're fubar then!

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Why the joke alert? There's nothing remotely funny about our situation.

    2. Korev Silver badge
      Joke

      > Ah! Just noticed you've mentioned qualifications, sorry, can't help you there!

      But, but they have PPE degrees...

      1. Chloe Cresswell Silver badge

        Most have PTFE degrees, as nothing ever seems to stick...

      2. Mast1

        Just like the "degrees" of PPE supplied in the COVID pandemic:

        Out of date, not on time, and not fit for purpose.

        Move along, nothing new to see here.

    3. Arthur the cat Silver badge

      Well, we got a Minister for AI now, does that help?

      Given that AI can also mean artificial insemination, I think it means we've got a minister to ensure we're totally fucked but without any of the fun. (Aka: government as normal.)

    4. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
      Happy

      Maybe we can replace the minister with AI now?

      Its got huge amounts of training data, unlimited funds , its just so sad that it reported back

      "here I am, brain the size of a planet and they ask me to be a government minister , its just so humiliating"

    5. Graham 25

      i read somewhere, there are zero qualified, real engineers in Parliament. Nothing from the IMechE, ICE or IET

      Not sure if its true though

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Talent is highly concentrated (and not cheap)

    Everyone is crying about gov. stupidity. Then I am shocked to read negative comments about a gov contract with AWS for paltry £0.5B. While here we are talking about 22x as much.

    Any opinions about gov vs private sector efficiency? Or how to optimally match those two?

    1. Graham 25

      Re: Talent is highly concentrated (and not cheap)

      At least with the private sector, if they are bad, they lose money and go out of business.

      We get the privilege of paying extra for the public sector to put right its f -Ups

      So how come there are all these public sector failures with private sector delivery contracts

      Answer : becauise its still got the public sector in there stopping or delaying everything with interminable changes and failures on GFE/GFI.

    2. sgj100

      Re: Talent is highly concentrated (and not cheap)

      The Government/Civil Service don't seem to recognise that outsourcing a project doesn't remove the need to have in-house expertise to specify, procure and monitor said project. I do have some sympathy for people working in public sector IT as they have to deal with politicians introducing legislation without any thought of how that legislation is actually going to be implemented. Legislative requirements only seem to become more complex rather than simpler with exceptions and exceptions to exceptions being introduced at every turn. When was the last time any government introduced a law specifically intended to reduce complexity?

      1. Graham 25

        Re: Talent is highly concentrated (and not cheap)

        " I do have some sympathy for people working in public sector IT "

        You really shouldnt as thats a choice they made, based upon their inabilkity to get a job in a company which will hold them liable for their failures.

        Government IT is where failed IT peoiple go to hide and fail without personal consequence but to screw up everyone elses lives.

        has there ever been a government IT success anywhere ?.

  8. TheVogon

    Have you seen what government jobs pay? ~ half the going rate. Of course they are going to end up with the most useless of people.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I strongly suspect that the problem is that the people in the room where decisions are made aren't clued up on the tech. So with the ESN, salesdroids from the vendor would be talking with the usual arts graduates from the government. Nobody ever got into the weeds of how a 4G based network was supposed to function over the whole of the UK. Techies on the vendor side would've known the problems - which is probably why they weren't in the meetings. The insistence on UK Gov outsourcing expertise means that they don't have the in-house experts who would smell bullshit a mile off.

  9. AC1967

    Isn't this the same old issue of the Government failing with procurement, and then with the management of the delivery?

    Are we trying to do too much in each "mega" project like this? Or, as I suspect, are there always too many factions who are competing for their "vision" of the solution so the scope constantly moves. Bits constantly get "tweaked". Etc?

    Would be interesting to see how other countries, especially in the EU, fair with their similar "mega" projects. How does their delivery (against cost and scope) compare with ours? If they are better, why? If they are worse, why?

    It feels like every "mega" IT project that we undertake in this country is delivered late, with issues, and hugely over budget. Are we incapable of asking "why" and then acting to ensure we don't keep making the same mistakes?

  10. Paul Smith

    Clueless

    I don't expect elected politicians to be experts at anything other then getting elected, but I have to ask why they are so consistently incapable of surrounding themselves with knowledgeable advisors?

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