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Why does it always go so wrong?

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The problem is what you might call the tyranny of IT, or process control, which is frequently a problem in large IT projects. Gargantuan computer systems, like Stalinist political systems, fail in their duty to their constituent parts because they cannot consider their differing, intricate needs.

Top-down modernisation has also proved too much for HMRC employees of late; 7,000 of them went out on strike over the matter at the end of July, and 15,000 are currently on a work to rule and overtime ban.

The industrial action was in direct response to what you might call the computerisation of the workforce, after £8m worth of fancy pants consultants decided they knew the best way for the department's administrators to do their jobs.

What HMRC did was take the principles of LEAN manufacturing and apply them to PAYE administration in the name of Gershon and the ship-shaping of the public sector along private sector principles.

LEAN is a method of making business processes more efficient that came out of the eminently successful Japanese system of Kaizen manufacturing. LEAN, a new wheeze in the financial services sector, revolutionised manufacturing by including the workforce in the design of more efficient ways to do their own jobs. Consultation was a part of the system, rather than something people at the top of the industrial hierarchy did half-heartedly, or when they'd run out of ideas. It made the the old Fordist hierarchies look as effective as dictatorships.

But the HMRC approach to LEAN, according to the Public and Commercial Services Union, which is leading the industrial action, was to impose it from above. Staff weren't consulted, they were merely given a working regime that involved managers watching their hourly work rates, rather like call centres monitor their employees to make sure they work to specification.

HMRC said consultation was an important part of what it does. It usually consulted with the union, it said, though it sometimes used surveys and team meetings instead. Ian Lawrence, national officer of Revenue & Customs for the PCS union, said the new regime was "like a modern day version of a sweatshop".

HMRC staff are now in a stand-off with their modernising managers, demanding that they have their voices heard and have their ideas can contribute to the design of the new, LEAN tax administration.

That's a sensible idea, as any LEAN expert will tell you, when applied to their working processes. But it's habitually overlooked in the design of computer systems, because it means trouble and cost for managers. Yet it's far cheaper and easier, the thinking goes, to have people design their working days around the needs of a computer system, than to design a computer system to work around the needs of people. This dilemma will become a more pertinent topic as computers and databases are employed increasingly as a means of shaping and regimenting society.

If the PCS win the concessions it is seeking with its industrial action, and the MPPC 2 computer system costs and deadlines are as flexible as the Treasury said they are, HMRC administrators might yet get into a position where they control the computers, rather than the other way round. ®

* The Treasury's Actuary department is three years late with its BS7799 compliance system as well, according to the parliamentary answer. There's a very dry joke in there somewhere.

** "The aim is to achieve substantial integration of health and social care information systems in England under the national programme by 2010. Clearly systems will need to be upgraded in the light of new technology and new national health service requirements beyond that date. The approach, in line with best practice, is to implement new services incrementally, avoiding ‘big bang’ approach, and providing increasingly richer functionality over time. The value of the contracts let for the core components of the national programme amounts to £6.2 billion over 10 years, and this has not increased. "

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