Public Services > Central Government

The new government: pledges and problems

Mark Say Published 13 May 2010

Pledges and problems

The change in government promises some new policies on the use of IT. Mark Say considers the implications

As with any new government, the coalition between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is eager to blow the trumpet of radical change. Its initial announcements include commitments on a number of IT programmes, and there were pre-election indications of changes in policy on procurement and project management. If everything is implemented it would justify the 'radical' label, but would also present some problems that have not yet been widely acknowledged.

It was inevitable that the coalition agreement would focus on the headline issues, and no surprise that it involves a commitment to abolish a couple of major initiatives. Both parties have vilified the National Identity Scheme, portraying it as a threat to civil liberties, and the ContactPoint children's database, which they say undermines the privacy of children and families, and it is no surprise that these are earmarked for early abolition.

This is going to impress the privacy activists, but the decision on ContactPoint may lead to regrets. It has already won plenty of support in local government, particularly among social services teams, and the next big news story on the death of a vulnerable child could prompt questions about why a system that has been developed to support child protection was so readily dropped.

More surprising is that the Conservatives have gone along with a Lib Dem policy not to go ahead with the next generation of biometric passports incorporating fingerprints. This should not cause any problems in complying with the US Visa Waiver Programme, as this only requires a facial biometric on the passport's chip; but it will move the UK further out of step with European countries in the Schengen Agreement.

These are providing visitors with biometric visas with which they can move around the signatory countries, and the use of fingerprints in passports is becoming more common in the EU. Standing back from this will satisfy those who are nervous about greater integration with Europe, but the lack of a common approach will undermine efforts to identify people across the continent, something on which law enforcement agencies place a premium.

A question mark hangs over another programme related to law enforcement, with the pledge to end "the storage of internet and email regulations and email records without good reason". This could indicate the abandonment of the Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP), about which both parties have been critical, but the reference to "good reason" suggests they are now hedging their bets. Any party entering government will quickly become careful not to be seen as soft in preserving national security or fighting organised crime, and dropping both ID cards and the IMP could be seen as giving up too much ground.

Despite these issues, there is a pretty firm consensus among the two parties that the outgoing government went too far in storing data on individuals. It is difficult to see them coming up with any similar schemes in the immediate future, although the pressures of government may produce programmes with familiar elements in two or three years.

On the business side, there is nothing in the coalition agreement on how government should approach IT programmes, and the Lib Dems have had little to say on the subject; which leaves the main clues to come from the Conservative party's IT Manifesto and some of its pre-election statements.

Over the past 18 months the party has picked at the Labour government's approach to using IT, claiming that it was excessively fond of big, ambitious programmes that gave too much to the big systems integrators, often fell well short of their aims and wasted taxpayers' money. It has warned that it is going to impose an immediate moratorium on planned IT procurements, and is ready to cancel any programmes that are seen to be off course.

This chimes with its argument on the state of public finances that things are out of hand and need emergency action but needs careful consultation with the legal experts. Getting out of existing contracts would likely prove to be a tortuous process, creating its own costs and leaving questions as to what would be put in their place. In a couple of years ministers would be taking awkward questions about why they dumped programmes aimed at dealing with problems high up the news agenda.

It is accompanied by a presumption against IT contracts worth more than £100m. This is consistent with the earlier claims in favour of a more modular approach to IT programmes, but it is notable that earlier documents from the Conservative camp advocated a strict limit on the value. The words "presumption against" indicate that the party specialists are already aware that some projects would be unfeasible without a price tag that goes above the mark.

Another potentially problematical element of the IT manifesto is the pledge to provide more power to the government's chief information officer (CIO), notably in implementing policies across government departments. This would do a lot to provide a more integrated approach, and support the spread of shared services, but giving the CIO, based in the Cabinet Office, power over other departments would challenge the civil service's way of conducting business. The move would provoke defensive reactions in some departments, and push the government into a broader fight about the culture of Whitehall for which it is not ready.

Other elements of the plans are less controversial, and in some cases in line with what was already being done. There has been a lot of noise about increasing the use of open source technology in government, but there is little difference between what has been advocated by the Conservatives and existing policy.

The party has also praised the virtues of open data, and apparently will do nothing to disrupt the work kicked off by the Power of Information review. (It's notable that one of its authors, Tom Steinberg, has been advising the party on IT policy.)

The IT manifesto promises legislation on a right to government datasets, and an extension of existing efforts to publish information on issues such as local crime, education and health online. There may be some institutional resistance to this, but the consensus view is strongly in its favour and it is difficult to see the trend being seriously hindered.

Similarly, the pledges to publish online the details of MPs' expenses, the finances of quangos and local authority spending on every item over £500 may upset some of the people affected, but it is in line with the public mood in favour of more financial transparency. And the plan to use technology for a "public reading stage" for parliamentary legislation is likely to win plenty of support beyond Westminster.

This is the first change in government since IT became widely recognised as a core part of its business, and there is enough in the various pledges to point to a notable change of direction. But in a few areas, the new government may find itself heading back to roughly where the old one was intending to go.

A version of this article will appear in the June issue of GC magazine.

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