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UK IT chief calls for downscaling of ID card plans

'Scoutmasters' targeted for phased introduction

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Whitehall IT chiefs may be poised to pull the rug from under the UK's ID card scheme on the basis that the technology isn't ready for prime time, and the project too unfocussed to pass Whitehall risk assessments. According to a report in the Independent on Sunday, Government CIO Ian Watmore has told ministers that the complexity and scale of the plan means that it may have to be phased in, while William Heath of Kable cites senior Whitehall sources as being on the brink of blocking the project.

Writing in his Ideal Government blog, Heath says that the ID Cards Bill could clear Parliament, "only to find one department irrevocably politically committed to introducing ID cards at loggerheads with other parts of government responsible for policing good practice in government's acquisition and management of the critical IT infrastructure, who will block the project." The Office of Government Commerce, responsible for Gateway Reviews of Government IT projects, would find it difficult to pass the scheme if the numbers don't add up, while the Home Office's desire to offload scheme costs onto other Government departments will result in more Whitehall chiefs having to decide whether or not the scheme is viable for their particular department. According to the Home Office a "cross-Departmental Ministerial committee" chaired by the Home Office's Tony McNulty is currently attempting "to identify benefits and efficiencies which the ID cards scheme can deliver to other Government departments" - the "benefits" it identifies will clearly come under close scrutiny when the relevant departments begin to consider their implementation.

But Ian Watmore, who is expected to publish the Government's IT strategy to 2010 and beyond next week, is most immediately in the ID card hot seat. His strategy is intended to meet the interesting challenge of getting current IT projects under control while at the same time implementing a revolutionary transformation in the way public services are run and delivered. Watmore's strategy, which sounds rather like the IT end of Blairism, is intended to underpin a 'citizen-centric' approach to Government and delivery, and hence will need to have a great deal to do with identity. One might speculate that having a succession of ID card related failures detonating over the next few years would not greatly aid Watmore's credibility, if he had happened to give the scheme his unqualified approval as it kicked off.

According to the Independent, Watmore has told Ministers that the ID scheme will have to be phased in, and suggests that pilot groups of victims, er, users should be identified, with people who have to be vetted by the Criminal Records Bureau such as scoutmasters, teachers and school governors being an obvious example. CRB checks were identified by the Government earlier this year as a possible source of finance for the ID scheme, but it has not so far made it clear whether it intends to make ID cards compulsory for those undergoing these checks, or just make checks a lot more awkward for people who don't have cards. "We are trying to say: 'Let's find an early use which is relatively self-contained and high value so it's worth doing," Watmore told the Independent. "Then we can implement the ID card in the way Parliament decides. It will be phased in over quite a long period of time."

Government Ministers have over the past few years been claiming that the ID scheme was being phased in, and that it will not be a 'big bang' project - despite its looking and feeling decidedly like one. This would however allow them to slow down implementation and make modifications without having to admit doing so. ®

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