Life on Mars

Who remembers the eighties? It was the best of times for those of us working in technology and at the time, columnists like me predicted a future, driven by the march of progress, that would make doing business cheaper and more efficient and would give each of us more leisure time and less stress as a consequence.

How wrong could I be? Yesterday’s future is today’s present and technology, much like the world of the “Matrix” consumes budgets with an insatiable appetite that has quite the opposite effect to that we imagined twenty years ago.

Can you still recall what the world was like before the arrival of the call centre, the speed camera and the Blackberry, when a holiday meant that nobody could find you for two weeks and when the public sector still relied on the typewriter and the telephone?

This week we heard that Council tax bills are to increase by more than twice the level of inflation this year, marking a doubling of the property tax in just ten years. At a central government level, billions of pounds of public money will be thrown at the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) and the up and coming national identity card project, leading the LSE’s Professor Ian Angell to comment on the latter "Any companies involved in IT should stick their snout in the trough now, because it's going to be a gravy train.”This is a huge opportunity for IT companies, as there are no downsides. Bid for everything, the system will be so huge; there won't be enough manpower in the country to deliver. And you can put in ridiculous prices, because the system won't work.”

An observer from another planet might think that by introducing the benefits of new technology and the internet to business and the public sector over the last twenty years, both would become smaller and more cost efficient. Instead the opposite appears to have happened. Visit a supermarket and you’ll see that clothes and food are now much cheaper than they were twenty years ago, with more choice on offer but consumers and taxpayers are increasingly the unhappy victims of the arrival of new technology in the workplace.

In theory, the introduction of electronic government and business process re-engineering concepts, should have led to a more streamlined public sector, calling on equally slim public/private partnerships to deliver cost-effective and competitive services to the population. Instead, many of us see the evidence of an expensive shambles and an exercise in self justification by local and central government. Lots of expensive, Guardian-advertised jobs and higher taxes to pay for local and central services, which like the Child Support Agency or the Tax Credits system, squander huge amounts of public money on wasteful, ill-conceived projects, dreamt-up by a handful of very large IT suppliers in collusion with our very naive political leaders.

Bureaucracy said Karl Marx, is the ultimate purpose of the state and business is suffocated by red tape and squeezed by compliance and expensive IT costs. Government continues to expand and uses IT as an instrument of control and taxation on a population which no longer believes in the value of the democratic process.

Last week, I chaired an electronic government conference with papers delivered from countries as far afield as Scotland, Taiwan and Singapore. What I concluded from the event was that while the arrival of new technology can add-value and speed-up some processes, it can make others worse and lead to the appearance of a single point of failure which has a knock-on effect downstream.

In reality and like seeking the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, chasing technology has become the new purpose of government and while the public sector talks bravely on efficiencies and shared services it becomes ever more expensive and people-intensive to run, leaving me to ask if what we have today, is really any better than what we paid much less for in our taxes twenty years ago?


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