UK ID card scheme near collapse, as Blair pushes cut-down 'variant'

Leaked emails detail train, track, buffers

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The UK ID card scheme is doomed to fail, and an attempt to put a face-saving downscaled version into place threatens to wreck the project sooner, rather than later, according to civil service correspondence. An email exchange between David Foord of the Office of Government Commerce and Peter Smith, acting commercial director of the Identity and Passport Service, leaked to the Sunday Times, paints a picture of an impossible mission, a "Mr Blair" driving a cut-down "early variant" card and a Passport Service already making contingency plans in anticipation of ID cards crashing in flames.

Foord produces the most detailed damnation of the state of the scheme, revealing that currently it has no approved business case, and describing the construction and approval of one by March 2007 as "a reasonable target but by no means guaranteed." It appears that the two civil servants (writing in early June) were trying to thrash out achievable objectives that could put the ID procurement programme back on track. We can presume from the correspondence that Blair and the Home Office were at this time aware that the scheme as planned was in deep trouble and would need to be pushed back by several years, but that Blair's insistence on having the first ID cards in place by 2008 had resulted in the early variant, together with the construction of a nebulous TNIR (Temporary National Identity Register, apparently) to do service prior to the actual NIR being ready to roll.

It is not immediately clear to the (real) Register what it might be about a Temporary NIR that makes it less challenging and easier to ship than a permanent one - Foord certainly doubts it can be done:

"Also even if everything went perfectly (which it will not) it is very debatable (given performance of Govt ICT projects) whether whatever TNIR turns out to be (and that is a worry in itself) can be procured, delivered, tested and rolled out in just over two years and whether the resources exist within Govt and industry to run two overlapping procurements. What benchmark in the Home Office do we have that suggests that this is even remotely feasible?"

Smith says he shares Foord's concerns about the TNIR timescale, that it was "a Mr Blair who wanted the 'early variant' card. Not my idea", and reveals that although procurements that will allow IPS "business as usual" to continue, TNIR is not part of these... "we are designing the strategy so that they are all sensible and viable contracts in their own right EVEN IF the ID Card gets canned completely. So also less dependence on business case approval etc."

Timing is here worth considering in more detail. The two are clearly discussing the scheme's problems because these have been exposed by the need to advertise procurements in the EU Official Journal (OJEU), and no spec means no ad, so no contractors and no project. But revised planning towards an approved business case and commencement of procurement by March 2007 quite clearly doesn't leave sufficient time for the 2008 ship date to be achieved. Blair will therefore have been told this prior to the beginning of June, but must have insisted on 2008, and the cut-down "variant" will have been decided on at that time. Note that in late May Blair was loudly nailing his colours to ID cards as the fix for all his immigration problems. That, we submit, was a man refusing to bend in the face of reason, not one preparing the ground for a face-saving climb-down.

In addition to being (as seems likely) on a collision course with the Civil Service over the feasibility of current plans, Blair, and the ID scheme, are also likely to be out on a limb as regards the broader issue of how Government should deal with identity. Foord's emails reveal "rethinking going on about identity management (which at best will provide an agreed vision and some signposts by end July)." While it might seem bizarre that the Government has spent several years pushing through an ID card scheme, while an "agreed vision" on how it should approach identity management has yet to be completed, that is precisely the situation. Over the years in which the Government has been insisting on a super-centralised approach to ID, brighter people in Whitehall have been slowly gaining the intellectual upper hand. The need to accommodate the planned ID scheme and its ship dates does however mean there's a very strong probability that the "vision" will still turn out to be somewhat maimed.

Foord however feels that dates on this will slip too because "ministers probably will not make a quick decision on papers submitted so the July date will slip badly", and that this will be compounded by "the likely hiatus caused by the summer holidays", i.e. the picture could well remain cloudy into September/October, at which time the OGC review, Treasury approval (or not) and the March 2007 deadline will be a lot closer.

And TNIR, whatever that "turns out to be"? It seems perfectly possible that at the moment we are no worse informed about this than the civil servants who've been given the job of building it. Its nature will however have been driven by political considerations. By insisting on ID cards shipping in 2008 as planned, Blair will have made it necessary for IPS to be in a position to collect biometrics by then, and for somewhere to put the data gathered to exist by then. Rationally this repository, the TNIR, would slide seamlessly into the NIR when that existed, but for this to happen it would be necessary to to have a clear specification of the NIR prior to commissioning the TNIR. Which is not the case - if the TNIR gets built at all, we would not be in the slightest bit surprised if it turned out to be largely archive storage, perhaps dipped into by the security services, but little more. And if the NIR gets built at all, we'll be starting with Blunkett's famous "clean database". Again.

The strong possibility of an early death for the ID scheme, however, still leaves troubling aspects to IPS' "business as usual" plans. The organisation formerly known as the Passport Service has over the past few years been roadmapping the ID scheme into its long-range business plans. The removal of ID cards from the equation would therefore still leave the other ID scheme under construction, and it could not be readily disentangled from Passport Service planning without a conscious, politically-driven change of strategy. So it isn't over by a long chalk. ®

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