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Vendors left waiting on ID scheme details

'Market soundings', little consultation

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Just three weeks after overcoming opposition to ID cards in the House of Lords, the Home Office has already published a "10 year plan" for implementing the scheme.

Yet the 10 year plan reads like a sales brochure, and the IT industry is getting worried that the new Identity and Passport Service (IPS), whose plan it is, hasn't the faintest idea what it is doing.

Speaking before the plan was published this week, Microsoft UK national technology officer Jerry Fishenden told The Register that IT suppliers expected to implement the ID scheme are concerned about the blinkered approach the government has taken to its preparations.

Any healthy debate about the best way to build what will be the most ambitious project of its kind anywhere in the world has been bullied into submission.

"There's a problem for anyone who is vaguely critical. The reception the LSE got has put anyone off putting their head above the parapet," said Fishenden.

The London School of Economics report, which offered constructive criticism of the government's ID plans, attracted government derision.

The Home Office says it has been conducting a "market sounding" with hundreds of suppliers since last summer and will publish the findings shortly.

Yet, Fishenden said: "Most of the consultation appears to be about the procurement process rather than the system...there's not a diversity of opinion to cover off angles we've not even thought about."

There are better ways to make decisions, he said. It is a serious allegation, as the ID scheme is at its most crucial early stages. IT projects are guaranteed to fail or go massively over budget if they are not planned properly from the outset.

Fishenden said government's plans to date look immature and is concerned they will end up imposing a mismatched, potholed plan on an ungrateful public.

That's why suppliers are so worried. They usually get the blame for IT cock-ups, even though at least half the blame rests with customers who fail to think things through properly before they commit to a project.

Once a project is underway, the most likely cause of failure is a change of direction. IT projects are painfully complex at the best of times. A change of mind is not as easy as turning an ocean liner. It's like turning a swarm of flies.

Suppliers therefore cling to the terms of contracts till they are blue in the face, because their reputations can be ruined by presiding over a high profile disaster. Equally, they hate to be trapped for 10 years under rudimentary terms that chuck nothing but dross out the other end.

Renegotiated contracts at least give suppliers ample financial compensation for recklessly hurried starts, even though that may mean wasting millions, possibly billions of taxpayers' money. The LSE's assertion that the ID scheme could cost as much as £19.2bn, rather than the government's estimate of £5.8bn, could be massively understated if the scheme is not carefully planned from the outset.

The government's aim to have a basic ID scheme up and running before the next election looks fatefully ambitious. Experts reckon the procurement process, should it start immediately, may take till the end of the year.

Then what is being proposed is no accounting system. It is one of the most ambitious projects, with the most alarming social consequences, ever undertaken. Biometric technology is unproven on armies of co-operative corporate drones. It may not be easy to get it working on a population of 60m people, many of whom will resist its imposition. That's another significant reason for the failure of major IT projects - what they call "user acceptance"; or as government ministers would have it nowadays, "customer satisfaction". ®

Note: Jerry Fishendon keeps his own blog on these matters. Fishenden's advice to government consists at its core of the work of Kim Cameron, a renowned expert on identity who recently joined Microsoft.

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