Her Majesty's Flying I.T. Circus

The British are top-drawer when it comes to fumbling high-profile IT projects. We tour the rubble as the government preps its e-government push

Even traditional British stoicism has a breaking point-and for more than half a million British citizens, that breaking point was sorely tested last summer by the introduction of a £120 million ($180 million) computer system at the country's Passport Agency. Processing times for passport applications stretched to eight weeks instead of the normal 10 days. As telephone calls went unanswered—over a million in May 1999 alone—people began turning up outside the agency's six regional offices to request their passports in person.

In Liverpool, the queues stretched for more than 100 yards. In Glasgow, over 500 people queued for 150 yards. In London, thousands queued up in the rain, forcing the agency to purchase hundreds of umbrellas to loan to angry would-be travelers. Television crews descended in droves.

In contrast to the United States, where many people don't have passports, Britons' annual hot-spot vacations in France, Greece, Spain and Portugal are an institution. Passport renewals are a must. Adding to last summer's urgency, as it unveiled the new passport computer system, the United Kingdom also began requiring that children travel on their own passports, rather than as add-ons to their parents' papers. Consequently, the problem for many citizens was that their vacations appeared to be more imminent than the arrival of their passports: At its height, the backlog of applications reached 538,000.

For the long-suffering British public, the debacle was yet another in a long string of IT failures. Undaunted, the Blair government has embarked on the United Kingdom's highest-profile public sector IT project to date—e-government, where citizens and companies transact most of their business with central government through the Internet. The problem? IT's a huge hostage to fortune. Past government IT failures have rarely touched individuals' lives: E-government will. And, as the passport fiasco showed, if it goes wrong, then the British bulldog possesses a formidable bite.

And in the passport case, that bite reached the Parliament. Senior government ministers were forced to make lengthy explanations in the House of Commons. A change in the law was rushed through, giving two-year, free of charge passport extensions at any post office. As hapless ministers bungled explanatory media appearances, mass-market newspapers like The Daily Express called for Cabinet sackings—an unusually forceful terminology to use in a country where the correct protocol requires unfortunates to be called on to "consider their position." Compensation was announced for those whose travel plans were thwarted by the nonarrival of their passports.

And outside passport offices, a triage system was put in place, with agency officials scurrying along the lines dispensing advice and prioritizing people into "urgent," "nonurgent" and "awfully urgent indeed, old chap" categories.

Home Secretary Jack Straw announced the recruitment of additional staff—this for a system that was supposed to reduce administrative headcount, not increase it—and promised that the situation would return to normal by September, an assurance that came as little comfort to those who had July or August vacation plans. At its nadir, Straw personally promised to move "heaven and earth" to get a passport to a woman going abroad for her honeymoon after her angry member of Parliament raised her case in the House of Commons.

THE MINISTRY OF SILLY LINES

For both Siemens Business Services—the computer contractor that had developed the system—and the U.K. government's Home Office, the passport debacle bore an awful similarity to the shambles that had occurred a few months before. That was when Siemens' £77 million ($115 million) computerization of the Home Office's Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) ran into the buffers. This system was designed to handle applications for asylum, extended stays and citizenship. Instead of processing 3,000 applications a month in fall 1998, the period prior to implementation, the number of applications processed had dropped to 995 by January 1999. The legal status of thousands was unclear. Again, queues of applicants formed—stretching for hundreds of yards on some mornings—while telephone calls went unanswered and newspaper reports spoke of sacks of unopened mail piling up in the IND's corridors in the south London suburb of Croydon.

And while the problem's initial public perception revolved around hapless refugees from conflicts overseas, the economic reality was far worse. Foreign nationals working in key jobs all over the United Kingdom were affected—the country employs a lot of software engineers from the Indian subcontinent, for example—as were the top executives of incoming foreign companies intent on establishing a British subsidiary. Media coverage quickly refocused on lost jobs and lost opportunities for investment, forcing Home Secretary Straw to add several hundred employees to the IND's staff.

For a system that was supposed to process more applications, faster and with fewer people, the awful reality was that the new system was taking longer, requiring more people to administer and processing fewer applications. Not surprisingly, the government's National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committees, the two watchdogs that monitor government spending, duly lambasted both Siemens and the civil servants in charge of the project, with Siemens being fined £4.5 million ($6.8 million) for its role in the disaster. (In fairness to Siemens, the penalty levied on it in the aftermath of the Passport Agency implementation was much smaller and reflected the role of the government's own rule-changing in exacerbating the shambles—a fine of a mere £66,000 ($99,000) , despite the fact that the new system resulted in the rising cost of processing passports from £12 to £15.50 [$18 to $23.25].)

Yet spectacular though the Passport Agency and IND failures were in terms of their public profile—there's nothing like queues of people on the television news to alert media and opposition members of Parliament (MPs) to savage the government—the systems' difficulties were relatively small fry in the fast-growing pantheon of British government computer fiascoes. In fact, one of the real surprises in both imbroglios was that opposition MPs and media commentators still had the energy to lambaste the government for its information technology record—or, indeed, that they could come up with new and different synonyms for shambles, disaster, fiasco and bungle.

CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER

Take a look at some other recent British government computer fumbles. After massive computer failures in a new Social Security system installed by Andersen Consulting, for example, some 400,000 people received compensation payments of £10 ($15) each—a National Audit Office investigation had reportedly found no fewer than 1,900 separate failures. The system, which was supposed to track Social Security contributions and calculate benefits owed to widows, pensioners and the unemployed, crashed within days of its debut in January 1999, resulting in 17 million contributions being unprocessed and forcing civil servants to guess at the benefits payments due to people. Even so, 160,000 pensioners were out of pocket by up to £100 ($150) per week, newspaper reports claimed.

Or consider the continuing saga of the new national air traffic control computer system being implemented by Lockheed Martin, the cost of which will have tripled in the seven years it has been in gestation, and which was deferred yet again in 1999, with the result that it may not come online until winter 2002-03—or even later. Or the high-tech system that bar-coded patients' clinical notes in Britain's National Health Service. Implemented only in 12 hospitals (after eight years of work), the costs of the project spiraled over £32 million ($48 million) by 1998, attracting criticism from the Public Accounts Committee in a report published in January for "almost unbelievably weak management."

Or the even more expensive cancellation of a system that was to have automated benefit payments by issuing claimants magnetic swipe cards, usable in the U.K.'s 19,000 post offices. The project, which started in 1996, was finally canceled in late 1999 with just 205 post offices converted to the new system after an estimated expenditure of £1 billion ($1.5 billion). Far from fining the outsourcing contractor in question—ICL, a subsidiary of Fujitsu—the government promptly awarded the company a contract to automate the operations of the post offices themselves, figuring that the company must have learned something about them in the three years it spent working on the project.

But best of all, according to aficionados of the British government's forays into computing (of whom there are many: One of the country's IT magazines, Computer Weekly, even has an annual award for the biggest government computer foul-up—competition is reportedly fierce), was the 1999 House of Commons report that acted as the obituary on a top-secret defense system buried deep in a war bunker beneath London's Whitehall.

Apparently code-named Trawlerman (government officials aren't exactly forthcoming with details), the system first began to run into difficulties when officials realized that the only access to the underground bunker was through a small hatch. Everything—even mainframes—had to be built, tested, dismantled, taken through the hatch, rebuilt and tested again. And the problems didn't end there. A combination of security and compatibility problems meant that by the time the plug was pulled, says one long-standing critic of the British government's approach to IT, the computers were operating to a specification so loose that it did not include a requirement that they do the job for which they were installed.

Nor were recent breakdowns isolated incidents. "[Although] 1999 was a bumper crop of IT failures in the U.K. government," says the University of Manchester's Richard Heeks, author of Reinventing Government in the Information Age, "a number of those turkeys were eggs laid by the previous Conservative administration and which merely happened to hatch under the [present] Labor government."

Indeed, consider the following damning indictment from The Independent newspaper: "Problems with the Department of Social Security's multimillion-pound computer project is the latest in a string of similar disasters. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been wasted on computers in the public sector, and the mismanagement appears to continue. Two months ago, it was revealed that the department had wasted about £35 million ($52.5 million) on rework—dealing with mistakes. Sources within the department put the latest losses as high as £125 million ($187.5 million). The National Audit Office and the House of Commons' Public Accounts Committee have been frequent critics of computer management by civil servants."

The problem is those words were written in 1994, and the Department of Social Security's computer system referred to was the system that the current bug-ridden one replaced. In other words, these problems with government IT in the United Kingdom are not new, and they aren't getting any less frequent. As The Independent article went on to observe, the fact is that the U.K. public sector's history of flawed IT implementations stretches back many, many years.

THE INQUISITION

But the problems that bog the systems down don't appear to be radically unusual or different. As Heeks says, the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee have for years been looking at the failures as they have occurred, and have generally come up with similar reasons for them. Heading the list: a failure to set clear objectives, a lack of senior management support and taking on projects that were technically overambitious (see "Lessons Learned?"). Coupled to this list, Heeks points out, the challenges facing public sector projects are usually larger than those facing typical private sector projects; staffing and skill levels are lower because of the private sector/public sector remuneration imbalance; and government organization structures are more conservative and less flexible than in the private sector.

Apart from better public relations management of the fiascoes as they happen, there are few if any signs that the British government is learning from its experiences, Heeks adds. (Coincidentally, the interview with Heeks took place May 5, the day that the British media was reveling in still another high-profile problem: the delays in the ballot count for London's first-ever elected mayor, as hundreds of electronic vote-counting machines, being used for the first time, broke down from ingesting dust coming from the green baize tables on which the ballot papers were stacked.)

But for many weary British taxpayers, the best government IT-related news in 1999 was that the civil service Central Information Technology Unit was launching a no-stone-unturned review of government IT practice, headed by an IT expert seconded from the Australian civil service, Anne Steward. In contrast to previous blame-pinning exercises, ran the hype, this analysis would actually try to formulate some best practices.

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