Is Government ID the next Government IT failure?

Now that the government has officially put the various contracts for the ID card project out to tender, the mutterings are starting to turn into a clamour: is the latest massive public sector IT project about to become the latest blank cheque from taxpayers to IT services giants?

After all, it’s not as if the government has a great history of successful IT procurement: the NHS electronic patient records scheme is the most high-profile example, but there are plenty of other examples, such as the Rural Payments fiasco, as reported by CUK on Monday. Taking on the job of Chief Executive of the Identity and Passports Agency cannot have been an easy decision for its latest incumbent, James Hall — after all, his last job was running Accenture’s now-defunct IT contract with the NHS. Talk about exchanging one poisoned chalice for another.

But in a way, there are few people more uniquely qualified to run a project with such similar scale and objectives. Apart, perhaps, from Richard Granger, the NHS IT chief due to depart from his post later this year. Granger has presided over what is possibly the most criticised IT project ever — and also unarguably the largest, at least in the civilian world.

And it appears that Hall has learned some lessons from his former client. The project will not rely on a brand-new centralised database, instead aggregating from existing databases. This development was announced in December 2006, just three months after Hall took on the role — perhaps a lesson learned from the NHS.

Nor will the project suffer from the NHS IT project’s primary problem — a central authority imposing unwanted solutions on local, autonomous trusts. Whilst there will be multiple suppliers, they will not be the regional monopolies imposed by the NHS. Instead, suppliers will bid for individual areas of responsibility — for example, designing the biometric systems used to uniquely identify people. Nor will suppliers have an automatic contract renewal from one phase of the project to another, so suppliers who seek to blame each other for failures will, it appears, be penalised. There will be no more ten-year, multi-billion dollar blank cheques, and the Home Office won’t have to resort to legal action to extract itself from contracts with failing contractors.

But it seems the system might not be free of the delays that have plagued the NHS. The government has already admitted the system will not launch in 2008, as originally planned, but in 2009 instead. It was originally planned to put the IT contracts out to tender in March last year, but that did not happen until last month. It is believed the tender was partly delayed to benefit from the ‘clean air’ of a new Prime Minister in Gordon Brown.

And the cloak of secrecy around the project cannot help public perceptions. In March, the Government entered into an Information Tribunal battle with the Information Commissioner to keep under wraps a so-called “Gateway” review of the business case for the ID card programme. The Office of Government Commerce, a branch of the Treasury, accused Information Commissioner Richard Thomas of “failing to live in the real world”. The case has now gone to the High Court after the Government lost its case in the tribunal.

But whether previous mistakes have been avoided or new ones have been made, it is clear there remains one battle that hasn’t been won — the battle of hearts and minds. Gordon Brown has a long way to go to make the British public identify with ID.

Graham Taylor