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In Sickness and in Health

The consultant at the BUPA hospital laughed when I told him that I was making a delivering a presentation on the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) at a conference this week. “It will never work”, he said, “believe me, I should know”.


Before the NPfIT of course, you could, like me, spend months waiting to hear if a consultant specialist was available but thanks to the miracle of technology and £6.5 billion pounds of taxpayer’s money, your GP will be able to tell you the same thing instantly and this is progress. That said, it’s taken me three months and I’ll be under the knife next Tuesday, privately of course, which is the only available solution if I plan to use my left arm properly again before mid-2005.

In fact, my own GP is worried by the costs and the time involved in integrating a system that barely works under the strains of today with one that will be mandated from above. That’s not to say that the NPfIT should be dismissed or derided, it’s just that the doctors and the IT professionals are showing very little confidence in its ability to deliver on its promises while the politicians and the companies holding the largest contracts believe the exact opposite.

The Government can of course point to other impressive victories to support their concrete belief in the success of the NPfIT. The Inland Revenue may or may not have lost ‘hundreds of thousands' of taxpayer records and the Earl of Northesk reminded the House of Lords of software errors last year, which led to overpayment of tax credits totalling £94m to 455,000 households. He warned of 'wider unease about the accuracy and reliability of the data used by the Inland Revenue' and given the valiant but unsuccessful efforts of the Revenue, this year, to prove I was an undeclared IR35 case, I can’t blame him.

Then there’s National Firearms Licensing Management System (NFLMS), seven years late, unable to print firearms certificates and too “slow for police operational services”.

Finally, there’s the new Child Support Agency (CSA) computer system or rather the old system because the migration hasn’t happened. Sixteen months after the date set for the changeover, one million cases remain backlogged with “No end in sight for a solution to the problem.”

There are of course many more similar examples of success that I won’t bore you with and to be honest, I’ve just binned the VAT Office form for online VAT returns, in that I firmly believe it’s safer for me to stay with paper returns, sent by post for a few years. Why? Many of us know from experience what happens when something is lost by the Inland Revenue or HM Customs & Excise. Whose fault will it be? Exactly, so best stay with paper and keep photocopies.

This may appear to be a cynical and jaded view of large public sector projects as the IT equivalent of Mao Tse Tung’s “Cultural Revolution” and that didn’t work either. After all, if as a nation we cannot guarantee than any train between Ramsgate and London will arrive out a very good chance of breaking down then what possible hope can we have in the world’s largest single IT project staying on the rails? You tell me.

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