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UK.gov watchdog didn't red flag any IT projects. And that alone should be a red flag to everyone

Transparency is welcome – but you gotta read between the lines

Policeman number 10, photo by pcruciatti via Shutterstock

Analysis The BBC’s release of its top earners’ salaries this week stirred up both long-time detractors of Auntie and dyed-in-the-wool supporters.

Yet for anyone who cares about public sector transparency, the disclosure was welcomed as a good thing, irrespective of political slant.

With that in mind, it’s worth taking a moment to praise the spending watchdog that keeps an eye on the UK government’s major programmes: its annual reports shine a light on govt splurging by scrutinizing projects with whole-life costs totaling £455bn.

Of course, its findings aren't as sexy as headlines about Gary Lineker, Chris Evans, or Laura Kuenssberg's pay packets. However, when it comes to how our taxes are spent, the reports are actually more significant.

The Infrastructure and Projects Authority's latest assessment – out this week – marks the fourth time the spending watchdog has detailed the progress of 143 large government programmes.

This annual process was kickstarted by the coalition government and the Cabinet Office’s policy to make our public sector more transparent – a sunlight-is-the-best-disinfectant approach intended to spur armchair auditors into poring over the figures in search of discrepancies.

The projects are individually rated on a traffic light system from green to red – green being good and red obviously being bad – as a result of health checks carried out last September. No IT programmes received the highest red rating this year.

In fact just nine IT projects were rated as amber/red, significantly fewer than the previous year. Although many of its other 'transformation and service delivery' projects could also be classified as IT.

While that system is a useful overview, as with everything, context is key.

For example, the Cabinet Office’s online identity-check system GOV.UK Verify was surprisingly flagged as amber/green, meaning successful delivery is probable. However, we're warned, constant attention will be needed to ensure wobbly areas in the project do not evolve into major headaches threatening delivery.

Crucially, though, that rating does not reflect the true state of progress for the programme, which was supposed to go live in 2012.

The system failed to work for farmers and married tax allowance recipients, and for millions of self-assessment tax users who file their accounts via an third party. In fact, HMRC has since decided to develop its own version, as Verify fails to meet their “user needs.” So far it only has a success rate of 46 per cent.

Thus, the explanation of Verify’s progress in the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) report doesn’t match the experience of anyone who has been following the project. “The IPA rated the programme’s technical delivery as green, but government’s ability to adopt as amber,” reads the assessment. “User volumes have been lower than forecast due to slower-than-anticipated digital transformation across government.”

Is the IPA really blaming low take-up of Verify on departments for not being digital enough?

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