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Libra still weighs down flagship govt. IT project

Unexploded depth charge

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Incessant delays to Libra have further set back a more ambitious programme at the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA), the £1bn DISC (development, innovation and support contracts) programme.

DISC managed to escape the scrutiny of the Public Accounts Committee last week when they turned their attention on the DCA, though Libra got another bashing for still being in pilot after 16 years.

It has been more than 25 years since the PAC first noted the shocking state of the computer systems used by Britain's courts. That makes Libra, the DCA's hi-tech answer to that jibe, a positively antique IT disaster.

A DCA spokesman said contracts for DISC would not be let now until October. The £1bn project was going to be divvied into two contracts that would subsume the ill-fated Libra.

This was going to happen in April, but the department moved the deadline to June while it figured out how the new contracts could swallow Libra. The DCA could not give an explanation for the delay.

Even disregarding the legacy it inherited from Libra, DISC is more than your common government IT delay. It was meant to provide the Office of Government Commerce with with a trial of highly contentious contract terms, which are designed to be rather tough on suppliers. The answers to important questions have been put off again.

We have discussed this at some length before, but there's an interesting new twist. To recap quickly, Libra used onerous PFI contract terms to lump all the risk associated with an IT project on the supplier, but it slipped up and PFI was banned for use in IT projects. In apparent disregard of that, the notorious £12.3bn National Programme for IT reintroduced those tough terms and two years later they became standard fare as part of the OGC's new model contract terms. So broadly similar terms to those that were held in partial blame for Libra's demise have been reintroduced in DISC, son of Libra, just to check if they still aren't working.

Libra's demise and its subsequent resurrection under new contracts with new suppliers in 2002 was also blamed on a number of other things. Fujitsu's handling was "poor", though this was over-emphasised. Official government reports found the department's project management skills more lacking.

Then there is politics. According to one source close to the project, Libra is currently piloting in only three of 42 districts because of political differences between the Magistrate's courts, who are not keen on the Libra brand of computerisation, and the DCA (or Lord Chancellor's Department as it was known at the beginning of this epic tale), which is trying to shove the new computer system down their throats.

That's what we're told anyway. An idle but interesting comparison can be drawn between the DCA's approach and the autocratic line taken by NPfIT, which is also overtime and over-budget, and which has also found regional resistance to its bullyboy approach to modernisation.

The DCA has still yet to provide an adequate explanation for the first slip to DISC that occurred in April. It might still be struggling with politics; it might be that those firms shortlisted for DISC's £1bn (Atos Origin, BT, EDS, IBM, LogicaCMG), don't want anything to do with it until Libra's back has been broken. We are none the wiser, despite this being one of the most important IT projects in the history of government computing. All we do know is that in the latest of many interims, as revealed by the PAC last week, the bill has gone up another £97m, to £487m - and this was a project that in 1998 was going to cost £146m.®

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