'I'm a technophobe' - Blair's shock confession
Laughing all the way to the megadisaster...
The Register's belief that when it comes to UK Government IT, nobody's driving received further support yesterday when Prime Minister Tony Blair happily confessed his technophobia to MPs. The exposure of Tone the technoklutz is scarcely news, but for most categories of MPs' questions it is ordinarily good form for the Prime minister to at least feign a knowledgeable and informed stance. But IT's OK - it's an exception because nobody can programme a video machine anyway, hah hah, right?
Unhappily, IT is of particularly vital importance to the UK Government right now, not just because we are poised to embark on a high tech, all-encompassing and pioneering (so they claim) national identity scheme, but also because Mr Tony and his Blairite modernisers intend to leverage IT to revolutionise Government systems in general, and more prosaically to achieve the efficiency targets and savings called for in the Gershon Review. So if the new systems don't work, run late, go wildly over budget then the wheels come off Chancellor Gordon Brown's budgeting, which is already generally viewed as being on something of a knife edge.
And it's not as if the first question Blair was lobbed (at yesterday's Liaison Committee session) didn't have a big red flashing *IMPORTANT - DO NOT JOKE* sign attached to it. LibDem Richard Allan enquired: " Prime Minister, do you accept you will not meet your Gershon Review efficiency targets unless Government dramatically improves its ability to purchase the large IT systems it requires?", and the exchange continued as follows:
Mr Blair: The IT systems are a vital part of it, yes.
Mr Allan: Given the performance to date on systems like the Child Support Agency, is this something which is up there on your public services agenda that you receive regular reports on?
Mr Blair: It is. Some of the IT projects do not go well and some of them do go well. Funnily enough, if you look at the comparison between public and private sector on IT projects it is not very much different.
Which of course might be true, depending on what it is you're counting when you list successes and failures, and how you define success and failure. But statistics produced without an examination of the factors that have influenced the outcomes of the projects covered have dubious value. UK Government departmental definitions of 'success', for example, will be influenced by political imperatives ('I want to be able to say it deployed on time'), while an absence of clear project definition and control is a prime characteristic of UK Government IT projects. This boils down to ambitious projects that don't succeed because nobody's driving, but whose failure is camouflaged because admission of another disaster is politically unacceptable. Less ambitious projects with narrower objectives on the other hand will tend to be more successful, pulling up the overall statistics.
But it seems unlikely that Blair will get much beyond the basic stats:
Mr Allan: You have something of a reputation of being a technophobe on a personal level, is that fair?
Mr Blair: I am afraid that is fair actually, yes. [Ingratiating chuckle here? Hansard is silent]
Mr Allan: It is. Have you ever visited the multi-million pound central government website that you have set up to get us all to use these new electronic government facilities?
Mr Blair: I think that is a very unfair question. The answer is no.
Mr Allan: Do you know the address of this multi-million pound project?
Mr Blair: No.
And then the coup de grace:
Mr Allan: Your head of e.government, Ian Watmore, would be able to tell you all about it.
Mr Blair: That is exactly why delegation is such an important part of the job of a prime minister. [Chuckle?]
Mr Allan: Finally, can you tell us when you last met with your head of e.government and how often you do?
Mr Blair: Yes. I cannot remember the exact date but we have regular meetings on this. The use of the new technology is a very, very important thing for Government. Online, for example, people are able to do far more than they ever used to. Some of the self-assessment on tax, there are now lots of people doing that online.
Mr Allan: Not the Prime Minister.
Mr Blair: There is not me doing it online, no, I have to say. I apologise for that, I have a few other things on my plate.