Casualties of War

Who will rid me of this turbulent priest”? This question spelled the end of Thomas Beckett, an Archbishop who was too free and independent with his opinions and one might imagine US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld making a similar remark about the Qatar-based Al Jazeera news channel or even the BBC.

While the recent and unsuccessful attempts to knock Iraqi television off the air illustrate how difficult suppressing the media can be, even with the help of cruise missiles, unfriendly or unhelpful Web sites aren’t such a heavyweight challenge and quite coincidentally, dropped off the Internet quite suddenly last week, its DNS records having mysteriously disappeared.

Before this war started, I warned that government’s digital Britain programme might become a casualty if it wasn’t over quickly. Today, we’re facing the growing prospect of a lengthy, bloody and very expensive campaign. In addition to the escalating cost of being a coalition member, our stock market is shaky and equally shaky Nigerian and Venezuelan oil-supply problems are, with the suspension of Iraqi exports, contributing to rising energy prices. As a matter of interest, 2006, the year we are supposed to have achieved 100% eGovernment is also the year that some analysts are predicting that our own North Sea oil fields will fall into decline. This will signal the end of the UK’s position as a net oil exporter and with it, the income stream that made a strong contribution to our economic growth over the last twenty years.

Contrast the writing on the economic wall with the investment that government plans in IT. Let us not forget of course the defence IT modernisation programme worth an estimated £5 billion over 10 years, the National Health Service's £2.3 billion IT modernisation and my own reliable ‘guesstimate’ of £500 million to finish the UK Online programme.

This is of course wonderful news for IT companies involved with government and at the other end of the spectrum there’s the small change projects running between £1 million and £10 million, such as £1.1m to create the UK's first internet-based equipment service for disabled people. The eWorld Technology Investment Survey, based on interviews with 600 senior business decision-makers predicts annual IT budgets would increase in 2003. In addition, eGov monitor reports a total of 48 projects that will be taken forward through local and national partnerships have secured funding under the latest round of the Treasury's ‘Invest to Save Budget’ (ISB) programme.

Can anyone tell me who is going to pay for all this progress, if, in addition to the costs of fighting a prolonged war, we have to contribute a significant proportion to the reconstruction of Iraq? Digital Britain is increasingly an aspiration as targets are missed but completion, ‘joined-up government’ and the vision that accompanies this demands an investment of public money, which may no longer be available.

Truth may be the first casualty of war but IT projects may come a close second.


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