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Tories would take an axe to Labour IT policy

Cameron's cohorts call a halt to big government projects

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In a speech to the Conservative Conference in Manchester yesterday, shadow Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude announced that he will be leading a review of government IT. In this, he will be aided by Tom Steinberg, co-author of the independent Cabinet Office review, "The Power of Information".

He said: "We need a fundamental rethink.

"We need fewer mega-projects; a rigid insistence on open standards and interoperability; a level playing field for open-source software and for smaller suppliers; a much greater willingness to buy off the shelf rather than always seeking bespoke perfection; opening up access to government data; a new vision for how we can engage with citizens; and far more effective procurement and management of projects."

Maude set out the three legs of an approach to IT policy that an incoming Conservative Government will put in place. That is, smarter, more cost-effective and returning control to the ordinary citizen.

Both Conservatives and LibDems have recognised the need for smarter working: Nick Clegg’s website includes an appeal to those in the public sector, asking if individual workers have any ideas as to how to save money. It may sound obvious, but best consultancy practice nowadays recognises that sometimes the most effective ideas come not from senior management, but from those working on the shop floor.

El Reg reported last year how attempts by mySociety to introduce open standards of working into reporting on the proceedings of the House of Commons have been resisted on the grounds that a big project will be along shortly.

Yet as Maude observes, it is precisely this "big project" culture that has caused UK government ICT projects to be littered with "budget overruns, delays and functional failures".

He goes on: "The UK Government spends more on ICT than any other government. If it spent the same per capita as the Scandinavian countries - ranked the best in class - Britain's ICT bill would fall by 23% - a whopping £3billion."

He also takes a tilt at "huge centralised databases", which have been created, "with a thoroughly casual approach to safeguarding private data". In this, he echoes remarks last month by shadow Justice Minister, Dominic Grieve, who is looking to see control of data returned to the citizen – and government use of data to be severely curtailed. Under a Conservative government, data sharing should happen not "because it can", but only where it is wholly necessary.

Against this, the Conservatives will need to overcome two serious obstacles. First, in what looks like an attempt to tie the hands of an incoming government, Labour is alleged to have negotiated contracts that may be difficult or expensive to break. The Conservatives have said they will review such contracts, and have not refuted suggestions that where a supplier recklessly contracted to provide a service that was unlawful – perhaps in terms of data protection principles - penalty clauses may be resisted.

More fundamentally, there is a sense that the civil service likes the big project approach and will resist as best it can attempts to return power to the people. If the Tories are serious, they could have a major battle ahead on this front. ®

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