A swift and sure way to computer disaster
Here we go again. Just two years after a new government promised to break with Labour’s record of IT-based policy fiascoes, along comes a high-profile public policy reform which looks set to go down the same dismal road.
The success of the revolution set out in the Swift and Sure Justice white paper depends entirely on the adoption of digital working. While the principle is fine - the white paper is right in saying that the delays and interruptions caused by current methods would be unacceptable in any other walk of life - the tone of the announcement rings alarm bells.
I’ve spent much of the past 20 years investigating and reporting on public sector IT fiascoes. The ingredients for failure are well known. They are: large-scale, tight deadlines and unenthusiastic users. Central government’s own ICT strategy, published last year by the Cabinet Office, acknowledges these risk factors.
Yet here we are with the Ministry of Justice confidently predicting that, by April 2013, digital case files will be in use throughout the police, magistrates’ court and Crown court systems and that, by the end of this year, an upgraded video system will link courts and prisons in a way that every camera can connect with every display screen.
The white paper admits that the ministry has a poor record when it comes to IT: the Libra court system and the Nomis offender-management system, both ordered under the last government, get namechecks. Yet when it comes to detail about how this time will be different, the white paper offers little more than blithe optimism about expanding, embedding and joining up good systems already being piloted piecemeal.
Actually, this is the difficult bit. It’s one thing to install new technology across a local community of users, especially when they are self-selecting and generously funded to try out a new idea: it’s quite another to impose the innovation nationally. Time and time again, schemes that were piloted successfully foundered in national implementation because of the problems of scale, unexpected complexity in the nooks and crannies of the system, or recalcitrance on the part of users. Any of this sound familiar?
Of course failure isn’t inevitable. Where national IT projects work - believe it or not, there are some good examples in the NHS, especially involving GPs - it is generally because they use proven technology and where users see a direct benefit. Most importantly, if there has to be a deadline, it has to be there for a real purpose, not for a minister’s electoral convenience.
Experienced IT project managers have a slogan: ‘We deliver excellence, speed and low cost: pick any two.’ Someone should nail it to the MoJ's door.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor
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