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Back to Basics

Another day, another local government seminar and a struggle to reach Marble Arch on an Underground which doesn’t go there anymore.

I ask the man in the Southfields station ticket window why the ‘plastic’ machine is still dead, adding that little extra misery to the District Line experience. Was this more evidence of the Slammer worm I wonder but the answer is much simpler “Because” I’m told, “London Underground won’t spend the money on machines that work”. “Can I quote you”, I ask? “Yes”, says the face behind the glass, adding proudly, “I’m a union man”.

At times, there’s an unhappy contrast between our third-world transport system and the 2005 vision of joined-up Government. Talking to the people here today, the congestion charge is a subject of heated conversation and every indication suggests that it’s going to fail in a cheerfully embarrassing ‘Told you so’ sort of way.

I ask for a show of hands from my local government audience. Can anyone tell me of a large Capita project that has worked from day one? No hands are raised but one person reminds me that Capita are still struggling with the much simpler teacher vetting responsibility and in his city they have no choice but to keep the teachers ‘teaching’ until the results arrive.

“Can anyone then give me a successful example of any on-time, on-budget, large-scale government technology project”? Still no hands but several shaking heads and a few grins.

The news that the Chancellor is allocating a billion as a ‘contingency’ against this month’s planned league match with Baghdad stimulates another thought. The huge costs associated with the expanding eGovernment agenda must surely be predicated on continuing ‘healthy’ economy beyond 2005 but the prospect of the ‘mother of all recessions’ may yet pose a very real threat to government’s spending plans.

Ironically, it’s not just me asking these questions, it’s the people working at the coal-face of local government eDelivery. They’re telling me that everything that’s not achieved has been re-classified as an “aspiration”, that the big picture is too big, that they’re underfunded and that the simple day-to-day challenges, email, encryption, authentication, privacy and business process integration, have still to be solved before work can really begin on the much grander vision of public sector transformation.

One public sector IT manager sums it up for me: “There are foundations and there are applications. Foundations should come first but they’re invisible and don’t give central government the results that it’s looking for. Applications are sexy but they are expensive and what we have to do isn’t found in any one box in the eGovernment section of PC World. The problem is that you can’t have both without asking for more money, which you aren’t going to get. So the effort goes into the applications and you hope the foundations, like authentication, will be resolved somewhere else".

If this is a call for a ‘Back to Basics’ approach, I wonder if anyone is listening?


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