Where Angels Fear to Tread

By the time you read this column, I’ll be behind bars, no doubt on remand in “the Scrubs”. Of course, it was bound to happen one day and I received the “Notice of Intended Prosecution” this morning.

Thanks to rapid advances in speed camera technology, this particular menace to society was caught – allegedly – making “Excess Speed” down the Old Kent Road – “a 30mph zone” – “at 16:07 on July 2nd”.

That day sticks in my memory, if only because the gridlock in South London was so bad that afternoon, that it forced me to turnaround in despair and fight my way home. In fact, I believe that if I actually managed to exceed 30 mph at any point on my route, I should be rewarded with a medal and certainly not a fixed penalty fine and points on my license.

“It’s quite simple really”, said one of my friends in high places with an ironic grin, “speed cameras are probably the only example of technology introduced by government which can actually demonstrate a return on investment. If we could automate the traffic wardens we’d be laughing”.

“It’s even better in Dubai”, I said. “Thanks to eGovernment reform, I’m told that if you are caught by a speed camera, the penalty is faxed or emailed to your address and is waiting for you when you arrive home”.

But it’s that irksome ‘Return on Investment’ idea that keeps nagging at my conscience. We are spending billions, not millions on upgrading, improving, evolving and managing the nation’s information real-estate and yet, over six months after collapsing under the demand, we can’t even get the 1901 census back-on line.

The public sector complains that it hasn’t enough money to push through it’s ICT programme and in the meantime, we could possibly build a hospital each month on what we waste on aborted pilot projects and lose on IT projects that wildly over-run, like NATS, the new national air traffic service.

Here’s a suggestion, not my own but it comes from the right direction. Central government should set-up the equivalent of a ‘Tiger Team’, to oversee the hugely expensive projects that industry, in its wildest dreams, would never risk trying.

The team might be twelve good men or women, with a long track record of experience of technology and project management at the macro-level, people perhaps with similar qualifications to my old friends Professor Jim Norton, who is now chairman of Deutsche Telekom and David Svendsen the ex-chairman of Microsoft UK. The job, once a project looks set to collapse, would be for this International Rescue-type team, to cut through the fog of civil-service excuses and public relations damage control and do what has to be done to save or sacrifice failing public sector mega-projects. Call it part rescue, part sanity check if you like.

What frightens me is the prospect of a public sector in denial and the spectre of failure. There’s a very obvious ‘friction’ between local and central government where ICT strategy is involved and all the Pathfinders in the world aren’t going to eliminate the ‘Them and Us’ perceptions overnight. IT managers in large corporations have sleepless nights thinking about million pound projects and yet Government calmly believes that it can succeed with £100 million initiatives. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread and when they go wrong what happens? A serious review of the responsibility, strategy and technology or the application of lots of expensive string and selotape behind a smokescreen of excuses?

I really believe that we need to urgently review our progress towards the goal of becoming an information society. Why are we doing what we are doing? Does the argument that the strategy is one of ‘spend avoidance’ rather than a search for return on investment, actually hold water?

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