Photo: Florian Hirzinger/CC
Photo: Florian Hirzinger/CC

Rob Pettefar, Swindon Socialist Party and software engineer

For a quarter of a century, successive UK governments have consistently failed to roll out large-scale digital infrastructure projects. It is the norm for a project to be delivered tens of millions of pounds over budget, years late and not delivering the stated objectives, found a report published last year by the National Audit Office. The Post Office Horizon IT system, evidence from which was used to wrongly convict thousands of subpostmasters, is but one of many failed projects delivered by a system completely unfit for purpose.

Additional reports published in 2020 and 2021 illustrate damning details of complacency and the lack of competency riddling all government departments including the cabinet office.

They revealed a complete lack of understanding of the complexities of government systems. And even a lack of knowledge why these systems are important! Key decisions made by executive staff with little if any experience with digital systems show the lack of democracy within the civil service.

The moving of traditional paper-based or semi-digital systems to fully digital systems is a complex task that can require a fundamental rebuilding of a system from first principles. This requires a thorough understanding of the desired outputs of the system and the people that have to interact with it.

Without this, a finished system is incomplete, or one that faces expensive delays as changes and adaptations are made to allow it to mesh with the existing systems and processes it was supposed to work with.

The lack of democracy in workplaces, in the private and public sectors, where ordinary workers most skilled with the needs of the workplace are not given democratic control, creates wastage and problems.

In January 2021, the cabinet office created the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) to lead the digital, data and technology function across government. It produced a road map, something lacking for the past 25 years, of how to put the government on a firmer footing going forwards. £8 billion of funding was also allocated towards improving IT infrastructure across the board, £2.7 billion of which is for work on legacy IT infrastructure. However, the recent spike in inflation has put pressure on these budgets. The Tory government has been firm that no further funding will be provided. At the same time, the CDDO will be competing against existing department priorities.

On top of these problems lies the technical hangover of legacy systems and data. This means there are systems, even within the same department, where it is difficult or impossible to share data between them.

And the quality of data held within these systems can be poor. The Public Accounts Committee in 2019 found the Home Office is making life-changing decisions using “incorrect data from systems that are not fit for purpose”. Glaring issues found during the Windrush scandal had still not been fixed. The layering of new systems and automation on top, are more likely to magnify problems than solve them. Given Labour’s shadow health minister Wes Streeting’s constant proposals for AI technology to streamline the NHS, this is a sobering thought.

Both Labour and the Tories are calling for more invovlement in the public sector by private companies. There are more than enough unscrupulous consultancy agencies willing to spin complex and poorly thought-out projects for as long as possible, growing fat on profit siphoned from public funds.

And let’s not forget that the end goal for most of these projects is saving money by reducing headcount – ie job losses.

Instead of wasted resources and private profit, there is an alternative – a socialist system with a democratically planned economy. Experts could work together with everyday workers and users of systems to build integrated digital infrastructure fit for the 21st Century. In a society where the working class is in control, the tools of the digital age can finally be unleashed to their full potential.