Her Magesty's Flying I.T. Circus

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.

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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.

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Lessons Learned?

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.

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