In autumn 2005, on a visit to the Home Office’s shiny new headquarters near Millbank, I enjoyed a demonstration of an all-singing, all-dancing joined-up criminal justice IT system. The ‘walk through’ was to show off a £2bn programme to join up police forces, prosecutors, the courts and prison and probation services through shared electronic case files.

The Criminal Justice IT project, set up with the blessing of the prime minister, was supposed to be in place by 2008. Needless to say, not much of the vision came to pass.

Will the current government’s scheme to ‘transform’ the criminal justice system through paperless courtrooms, body-worn video cameras and the like fare any better?

The action plan action plan published last week has nothing to say about its predecessor.

But connoisseurs of government IT projects will notice several tacit references to lessons learned from previous fiascoes. The consultation refers to ‘agile and open policy-making techniques’ and ‘co-design’ of systems. This is a welcome acknowledgement that centrally imposed big-bang systems rarely work in an ecosystem as complex as public services.

Meanwhile, for all the gung-ho language of criminal justice minister Damian Green, the small print concedes that the ‘single information management system’ is still subject to a business case.

All this suggests a welcome note of realism and flexibility over the hubris of the last government’s IT schemes.

Another reason for optimism is that, even in the legal sector, we have come a long way in our familiarity with IT since 2005 – an era before the iPad and Twitter, when public Wi-Fi was an extreme rarity.

One snag remains. Decades of experience, in industry after industry, have shown that IT-based transformation is bloody unless there is enthusiastic cooperation by the people on the ground who have to learn new systems and adapt their working practices. This tends to happen when all parties go in to the process in support of the big picture, knowing that their professional concerns will be taken seriously.

No problem with that, is there?

Michael Cross is Gazette news editor

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