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The ID scheme is the most obvious of the Home Office's IT headaches, but it's by no means the only one. The Immigration and Nationality Directorate's recent discovery of up to 450,000 records associated with asylum seekers speaks volumes about the state (or indeed the very existence) of the asylum and immigration database, while serial failures in passing simple pieces of data between departments and agencies indicates systemic IT failure. Even if you conceded the ID scheme was dead now, you would not be able to fix the Home Office without fixing all the rest of the IT.

There are signs in the Home Office's Reform Action Plan, which was unveiled yesterday, that the Home Office grasps this, but there are also less positive signs that suggest that having understood it, it has decided to fake it anyway, for the sake of brevity. In terms of broad structure the Home Office centre is intended to shrink while its various arms gain greater autonomy and accountability, and savings from staff cuts at the centre are to be balanced by increased resources for and improvements in front line services, as per the standard Brown/Gershon pitch for 'efficiency savings' (which received a poor review from the Public Accounts committee today). IND itself will evolve into an executive agency of the Home Office, while the new National Policing Improvement Agency will open its doors in April 2007. The Identity and Passport Service already is an executive agency, which leaves one other major operational service, the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). Home Office structures and IT systems will also need to take numerous other areas, including police, prisons and criminal justice, into account.

According to the plan, the Home Office "will completely overhaul how we collect, analyse, share and use management information in developing policy, delivering front-line services and in communications." There will also be "a programme to improve our management information", while published statistics will be streamlined (which may or may not be a euphemism), and research and analytical resources will focus on "producing timely and accurate information for our policy teams and operations."

So there's clearly plenty of IT management meat there, along with what one might presume as a heavy budget requirement. That, however, may not be entirely straightforward, because in common with other departments the Home Office is under a tight financial leash, and Home Secretary Reid has already had to horse-trade with the Treasury to finance the new prisons he finds himself in need of. However, "We will build reliable and efficient processes in all our operating areas, through implementing a Department-wide programme, and will strengthen our systems through an IT strategy led by our new Chief Information Officer."

The CIO, intended to "lead the work to join up information and IT systems across the Home Office", is clearly key. A Home Office spokesman however told The Register that no appointment had yet been made, that the recruitment process had yet to begin, and that there was as yet no timescale for the appointment. The Plan however calls for the CIO to have developed a "Home Office-wide IT strategy" by December 2006 - which will be a good trick if they, whoever they turn out to be, can pull it off.

Also by the end of 2006 each of the operating businesses is intended to have "a high-quality IT director." The spokesman was unable to say how many of these, if any, were already in place, but it seems likely that there's a whole IT upper management superstructure to be put into place in order to drive the IT programme forward. The Home Office is however engaged in "a rapid stock take of our most important programmes, including those with significant IT components, which will be completed by the end of September 2006."

Some form of IT rescue programme also seems to be already engaged at the Identity and Passport Service (whose new chief executive is to be announced in September): "We will also build on the approach developed by criminal justice IT to assess and improve IT programmes - the Identity and Passport Service will complete a pilot by September 2006, and we will extend this across the Department by the end of the year."

The Register has asked the Home Office for some elaboration, and they may well get back to us with it at some point. It does however look like IT strategy is beginning to go into place before the IT management actually arrives, which risks the imposition of a top-down strategy implemented without adequate consideration of what's going on on the ground. The reference to criminal justice is however significant, because the current Government CIO, John Suffolk, moved there from criminal justice IT; we could therefore speculate that he's involved in digging the ID scheme out of the mire. With what success we may discover in September - the wise job applicant might choose to wait until then to sign. ®

Tough on language... In framing the challenge, the Home Office tells us that John Reid expects performance to improve in five areas, the first of these being "poor performance." It is tempting to pretend they're saying performance isn't poor enough yet, that "weak services" aren't weak enough, or that they haven't got anything like enough "inadequate systems and processes." But yes, it's not clever, it's not funny and we know what they mean really. Nevertheless, the notion of the Home Office striving to improve its performance performance does conjure pictures of hamsters and wheels...

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