Our aim has always been to build a country where strong public services are underpinned by a successful economy.
– Nicola Sturgeon, Foreword to SNP Manifesto 2016
My eye was caught by an STV news item today that an upgrade of the Scottish government web site had either cost £80,000 over the last two years (response to an earlier STV Freedom of Information request) or its cost could not be estimated because it ‘is one of a number of projects being managed collectively on a shared publishing platform and we cannot separate the costs of each individual project’ (a recent press release).
To be honest, I’m not too fussed about £80,000 bearing in mind what the web site should be doing: I’ll return to that question at the end of this article.
What it did remind me of, however, was the fact that the SNP government doesn’t have that brilliant a track record on information technology (IT) projects. In fact it’s pretty appalling.
Back in 2012, Audit Scotland reported on the management of three major IT projects that
were delayed, cancelled or overran on costs … the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (£10 million budget), Disclosure Scotland (£31 million budget), and Registers of Scotland (project originally valued at £66 million but £112 million has been spent so far).
The Audit Scotland report contained a number of clear recommendations for improvement.
Now, four years later and this year alone, we have seen three significantly larger IT projects where the same old problems seem to be recurring:
- in July Police Scotland cancelled an IT contract over concerns that it could be completed neither on time nor on budget. The contract had been worth £60 million (Source: STV)
- a call-handling and IT system for NHS24, initially due to be ready in October 2013, will now not be fully implemented until the end of 2017, four years late, and is estimated to have a final cost of £117 million more than 50% higher than the original estimate (Source: BBC)
- a system to process EU agricultural subsidies left many farmers without payments for months and the delay could result in the Scottish government having to pay fines of up to £125 million. Originally costed at £102 million, the system will not only have a reduced scope but now has a final budget of £178 million (Source: Audit Scotland)
The £355 million total cost of these three projects – abandoned, delivered late or reduced in scope – make the £80,000 web site upgrade look like sweetie money.
They say that one of the definitions of intelligence is the ability to learn from experience. The three flawed projects Audit Scotland reported on in 2012 (total cost at least another £153 million) provided the opportunity to learn from experience for a party that has now been in government for ten years. You can draw your own conclusions about whether they have done so.
The upgrade of the Scottish government web site could well provide an object lesson in how to carry out significant IT projects in future. It is, ironically, being carried out on the basis of methods refined for public services by the UK Government Digital Service (GDS). In principle the three UK devolved administrations are part of the GDS but seem to pretty much run their own race on IT matters.
That’s a shame, because the UK government is way ahead of Scotland in the delivery of online services, all through the GOV.UK web site. You may not even realise you’ve used GOV.UK yet but if you’ve ever gone online to pay your car tax, complete your income tax return or renew your passport, this is the web site you’ll have visited. It’s clean to look at and simple to use.
Until now, the Scottish government web site has been mainly something you’d look at for information: it’s also cluttered and difficult to find your way around. As more of the services newly-devolved to Scotland are legislated for and implemented, a GOV.UK style of web site, where you can actually do things, and efficiently, becomes critically important for people, businesses and other organisations.
If you think all this stuff is just a matter for technical experts or bureaucrats, think again.
The UK government must be several years ahead of Scotland in this area – because ministers in the coalition government insisted that services be delivered digitally ‘by default,’ both to make them better and to save money . Here, it seems as if the lessons of continuing failure in traditional ‘mammoth’ IT projects with huge budgets taking far too long have still not been learned.
If you trace through the last ten years you can find numerous Scottish government information technology strategies, policies, plans and aspirations, not only for themselves but for the wider public sector and for Scotland as a whole. But paper documents (or, lets get modern, pdf files) are not enough. Basic competence is needed too if you want the ‘strong public services’ of the SNP manifesto. They’ve had ten years. How much longer are we going to see wasted money, delay and poor performance in the SNP government’s IT projects?