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Westminster help desk gets slated by MPs

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Members of Parliament and their staff have expressed massive dissatisfaction with their IT support.

In a recently published report (pdf), cheesed-off politicos and admin types fulminated against the Parliamentary Information and Communications Technology Department (PICT).

"My career has been spent in the national offices of a variety of charities of varying sizes and...in a private sector marketing agency," wrote one MP. "I have to say that although individuals are often friendly, helpful and professional, the PICT service overall seems to me one of the poorest I have received."

"I have a very poor overall opinion of the services provided," grumbled another. "There have been a number of occasions when we have been let down when it comes to resolving technological problems...On occasions my Constituency Office has been brought to a standstill for weeks due to the failings of PICT."

Ousted Home Secretary Charles Clarke said: "Very irritatingly, I cannot use my laptop in Parliament at all. The wireless connection simply does not function in Parliament (though I can use it in Schiphol Airport or the Conference Hotel in Manchester for example)."

The ex-Cabinet minister, now relegated to the back benches, did have the grace to admit that "my own ICT expertise is limited and so I may well have missed solutions which will appear obvious to those more expert than I".

James Arbuthnot, former Minister for Defence Procurement and now chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, also had harsh words for the hapless IT staffers of PICT.

"PICT does not provide quick and competent support...It is not a good organisation. And it is a monopoly organisation. While there are shining individual exceptions to the string of whinges I set out below, they are exceptions."

Arbuthnot's string of whinges was rather long.

"It took [the Defence Committee media officer] a fortnight to be issued with a mobile, a ridiculous thing to happen in the media world," he says.

It's possible that Mr Arbuthnot is being a bit hasty with the first stone here. After all, he was in charge as a minister - among other things - of the Bowman battefield comms project from 1995 to 1997, during which period it made approximately zero forward progress. Thus, British squaddies had to continue to use unencrypted, appallingly unreliable analogue radios for another two years; which you could describe as a ridiculous thing to happen in the defence world of the 1990s. Maybe two weeks for a mobile isn't actually that bad.

And Arbuthnot went on:

"The laptops are too heavy," he complained, in an uncanny echo of what British troops said about Bowman when it finally arrived. Though they may have had a tad more justification.

But Mr Arbuthnot was a happy camper compared to Ann Widdecombe, a former minister for prisons and immigration.

"I find it difficult to understand quite how the 158 staff in the PICT Service can fail to deliver a more helpful, efficient, and generally trustworthy service," the parliamentary heavyweight raged.

"If Parliament were a company it would not have the technological finesse to compete with the Third World...whenever a member of my staff or I telephone the PICT Service we can expect to wait 15 to 20 minutes...after only a few weeks the fax facility was continually breaking...at other times the printer refuses to believe there is paper inside it."

And so on. But the beleaguered Parliament IT department wasn't alone in the line of fire. Another target for MPs' spleen was econo-hardware heavyweight Dell, whose kit came in for dozens of slatings.

A few MPs submitted positive comments, and a few more understood the security constraints that PICT must be facing, but mainly they seemed to feel that PICT should offer end-users much greater levels of service.

The investigating MPs of the Administration Committee, unsurprisingly, said they had found "a significant undertone of dissatisfaction with the ICT services provided by Parliament".

Just the ICT services? ®

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