Institute for Government “System + Error”

Today, the Institute for Government published System+Error, a study setting out “the case for a new approach to IT in the public sector”. How does it stack up? Not least in the light of wider policy such as the plans to end ‘state monopoly’ in provision of public services

Overall our reaction is muted. The report is a call to action and it could better have been an opportunity to think laterally and focus on removing a few barriers, the real obstacles to innovation.

In “making the case for change” the report begins by highlighting online vehicle road tax as an example of successful IT.

Unfortunately, on the day the report was published the DVLA system was down for essential maintenance. So VED is not available on-line so currently I have no idea if the platform is well implemented. I do know that the final stage in the process is to check for a valid insurance on the motor insurers database and there’s a clue.

As long as Government IT isn’t sufficiently agile to cope with the idea that as motor insurance companies do everything else (identity, address, money, V5, insurance) just give them a stack of tax discs and tell them to get on with it, then we are stuck in the same paradigm.

Until then we still have a problem and a single point of failure. BTW, it would have been cheaper and still would be.

The idea of building in a role for Government IT rather than building out a role pervades this report. The concept of doing nothing, the first stage in any options appraisal is noticeable by its absence.

Doing nothing could be good for everyone including companies trying to supply IT services based on FLOSS. A thought echoed here in slightly different terms:

    “References to On-line Driving License renewal as a flagship should recognise that its success demonstrates shows that about a 40% of us are content to pay £2.50 extra for the privilege of helping HMG save 80p! I live barely 50 yards from a Bank and 200 yards from a Post Office. But for the queues in both, it would nearly always take me less time to transact with a human being than it does on-line – thanks to poor response times, bloatware and the need to look up security codes that I have forgotten. The Driving License renewal is one of the few cases where that is not the case.”

Without any obvious intervention from a govt CIO things you can do on-line now include book airline or train tickets, bank on-line, shop for almost anything obtain car insurance all without a second thought as to which computer you are using while choosing one of many services according to your personal preference; dare we say avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach?

Whereas applying for benefits online still requires MS Windows.

The report goes on to recommend the use of Open Office where the “advanced functionality” of MS Office is not required. We regret the report does not mention all the other options. And as you might imagine it’s not that easy.

We could argue all day about the merits or de-merits of any particular office application but there’s one simple thing that could be done in order to enable choice. We’ve put this to the UK Govt deputy CIO, he’s indicated he’s looking into it and we look forward to his substantive reply.

This naturally leads on to the discussion on standards. On page 11 you can read “common standards support interoperability but also restrict the freedom to innovate”. Fortunately the government doesn’t agree neither do others and nor do we; providing we are discussing open standards.

— Gerry Gavigan, Chair, 2 March 2011

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