Saturday, 21 April 2012

The government shouldn’t waste our money behaving like a Silicon valley start-up

Fellow blogger David Moss has zeroed in recently on government proposals to store all our personal details inside a vast, fluffy, digital informational nimbus known as a G-Cloud (you can reach his site via the Blogfeed section to the right of this post - or here). As any fule kno, any such scheme will, without any doubt whatsoever, turn into a fantastically expensive disaster, like most grand government technology projects (well, like most government projects of any kind, actually).

If it ever actually gets built, the system will fall over constantly, it’ll cost ten times as much as we were initially told, and every Albanian gangster and Nigerian conman on the planet will be able to access the supposedly secure cloud and steal our identities at will. By then, of course, everyone responsible will have moved on: ministers will be in opposition or will have been sacked (due to a financial or sexual scandal rather than incompetence, you understand), the civil servants responsible will have retired on fat pensions or been promoted, the consultants will be fleecing some other government department, and the companies who built the disaster will nevertheless still be pocketing vast fees, because that’s what the original contract stipulated.

The only people paying the price for the fiasco will be you and me, through our taxes.

Why does this nonsense keep happening? Why do people who should be acting with the utmost caution, because, after all, they’re spending eye-watering quantities of our hard-earned dosh on things we have no say over, invariably behave as if they’re involved in some fabulous trendy, cutting-edge West Coast technology start-up gorging themselves on oodles of investor funding, sipping herbal tea and saying “cool” and “awesome” all the time?

Out there in the real world, the system works fine. Most start-ups fail dismally, private investors lose whatever they put in, and everyone involved runs around looking for another get-rich-quick wheeze to snare fresh investors (or the same investors, if they’re dumb enough). Just occasionally, a start-up will succeed spectacularly, in which case founders and employees get rich and investors make a terrific profit. That’s the way capitalism works and that’s fine and dandy.

Similarly, established companies are always bringing new products and services to market in order to grow their business, expand market share, create and exploit new market niches, see off the competition etc. Many of these products and services fail, and the company writes off the loss: others succeed, and it’s treble brandies and promotions and bonuses all round. Again, great! We don’t have to buy shares in those companies – or any of their products or services – if we don’t want to.

When it comes to public sector "businesses", these rules simply don't apply. Because profit and survival aren’t issues, there’s no need to gamble with our money. After all, there’s no niche in the market to exploit. In fact, there’s no market, just as there are no competitors. It’s an environment in which there is absolutely no need whatsoever to take any form of risk.

In some ways, of course, asking publicly-funded enterprises to ape the private sector is a good idea, especially when it comes to value for money and efficiency and all that cool, awesome right-wing stuff. But it’s an appalling idea when you end up with public sector employees, consultants and private firms forming an unholy alliance to bamboozle distracted politicians and long-term civil servants into taking ludicrous risks with our money – for no good reason. Government departments can’t simply shrug and say, “Well, that didn’t work, but look at how well our new navel-fluff extractor is doing ('Say bye-bye to blue belly-fluff blues with…')". There’s no way to balance the books, and the job the technology was supposed to do still has to be accomplished somehow.

I don’t give a rat’s bum whether the government is hanging ten on the leading edge of the next wave of digital innovation – no, I do, actually, because that’s the last place I want it to be. I want it to be about ten miles back, in a super-stable rowing boat in calm water, wearing life jackets and equipped with every safety aid imaginable. Personally, I don’t want to invest in a cutting-edge technology start-up – and I certainly wouldn’t want entrust all my personal details to one.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the plug.

    We should record some of the genuine hardship suffered by the chicklets in the Whitehall incubator funds, particularly the G-Cloud team and their cousins in the Government Digital Service (GDS). To give a balanced view, consider this harrowing tale of a new boy on his first day at school:

    I joined GDS because there's nothing cooler than working on something that touches so many peoples lives ... sitting on one part of the floor can feel a little like being in a bouncy castle. There's a nice kitchen that's only missing one essential bit of kit: we could really do with a dishwasher!