Freesteel Blog » Scary stuff going on in the gov

Scary stuff going on in the gov

Saturday, March 2nd, 2013 at 12:37 am Written by:

I remember the old days of awesomely crap government IT projects procured for billions of pounds that always failed after going three times over budget, then got covered up along with their contractually obligated fail-safe profits for the corrupt IT consultants — who then repeated the process having successfully claimed that anyone who said it could be done any other way was beardy hippy whom you should take no notice of. Funny how the stereotype of a computer expert was usually a beardy hippy.

I once blogged about this conversation from the Select Committee on Public Administration in 2005.

Mr Liddell-Grainger: The Government set up a project called True North… Does anybody know what it did? The Cabinet Office gave the okay to £83 million to set up a project called True North, which was to paper sleeve a deal with Government. It has gone somewhat wrong. The only reason we came across it was because the company sued the Government for £24 million, saying that they were plonkers and they did not know what they were doing… Do you think it is farcical that we have got to the stage where you cannot get papers, we cannot get papers? The Government are covering up projects that have gone wrong to the tune of £83 million —- and that has been a snip compared to some of the things they have messed up. Are we just getting to the stage where this whole thing is becoming a farce?

…It does not seem to work. You have portals everywhere; you have websites; you can go in one way, another way. How on earth we are going to have an ID card system that is going to work, if the Government itself at the highest level cannot even get a project right?

…Who should be in charge of this? Do you know what the total assets of the Cabinet Office’s computer resources are? £122 million. That is more than the asset value of all the buildings they have in Whitehall, believe it or not. We cannot find out what they are. Do you have any bright ideas? Why has the Cabinet Office got £122 million worth of computer assets? They wrote off £52 million last year in depreciation. Either there is an awful lot going on that you do not know about and I do not know about and we do not know about, or one heck of a mess has happened and we are not sure whether it has or has not.

Mr Collins: Again, it is hard to get information. There is usually quite prolific documentation in the early stages of the project about its benefits but they do not publish result implementations. There are some examples. The DWP is probably one of the biggest. They announced to Parliament that their modernisation/computerisation of benefits would cost, I think, £713 million and would save 20,000 jobs, but at the last count it was £2.6 billion and the number of staff involved had increased. There is a magistrates’ court system called Libra, which was announced as being a £140 million project. At the last count that was £390 million. But it is hard to get information on costs, because they revise contracts.

So, what’s going on now in this same Cabinet Office?

Well, the money finally ran out, and the expensive do-nothing consultants could no longer be afforded, leaving no option but to hire the programmers directly and take on board their profit-reducing rationalizations related to actually getting stuff done.

And now there is code, visible, being produced, that you can see does something.

The URLs are all pretty cool. That’s the front doormat of any website. Go check out their blog and be amazed.

Here’s my favourite bit:

What we learned

…We also learnt about the benefits of agile software development – starting small, getting user feedback early and iterating fast based on evidence of real need.

To give a small example of a possible many: before the beta several of us thought a WYSIWYG text editing interface would be essential for departments to format their content. But by building working software and unleashing it early we discovered that editors quickly came to like the simplicity of markdown and, a year on, more than a hundred people around Whitehall are happily using it. Developing something more complex would have been a waste of time.

I’ve often had arguments with dogmatists who think that programmers and users are separate classes of people whom it is desirable to prevent comingling. However, this last statement cannot be true. Nobody develops complex WYSIWYG editors any more when there are enough of them out there that you can install for free. Someone must have been far-sighted enough to keep that type of rot out.

The real reason to shun WYSIWYG editors in favour of markdown technology (like the kind you find in Wikipedia) is that (a) they obstruct touch typing and other performance improvements that come with practice, and (b) they are fundamentally incompatible with end user computing, which is where the real enhancements are going to take place.

is twofold: (a) Their human performance is slow

1 Comment

  • 1. Tony replies at 20th March 2013, 9:02 am :

    You’ve left in an early draft of your final sentence…

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