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The ATOS debacle shows Westminster is clueless about IT

Column Deja vu all over again
Fri Jul 18 2014, 15:07
chris merriman

THIS WEEK something made me so furious that I actually went a little bit cross-eyed. You know, the sort of angry when you're beyond angry to the point where you're so calm the only person you scare is youself?

Very quietly, it was revealed that the UK government has paid French IT company ATOS £10m to continue its contract with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) delivering work capability assessments.

For those lucky enough not to know what I am talking about, ATOS is, and I cannot emphasise this enough, a firm that designs and implements computer databases. Yet somehow, it convinced the last Labour government that they were suitable candidate to make decisions on disabled, sick and injured peoples' rights to benefits and abilities to work.

It's a bit like if the Bridlington branch of the Women's Institute contracted the preparation of homemade jams to Hobart Paving.

ATOS devised a series of criteria on which to base these decisions with assessors using a computer program to answer questions like "can the patient walk 10m unaided - yes or no".

For four years, I was at the mercy of ATOS as my health deteriorated to the point where I could not work. Like the vast majority of sick people, I wanted to be well enough to work.

But computers don't understand that in life, and in illness, there are shades of grey. Two GPs and three consultants had told me that I was not fit for work. And yet, thanks to the fact that on a good day, I can walk 10m unaided, lift a box of corn flakes without groaning, and - no kidding - was well enough to come to the assessment in the first place, the computer told me I was match fit. Yes, the computer actually counts turning up to the assessment against you!

Oh happy day! Oh thank you ATOS computer! Thank you for making me look for jobs on days when sometimes I can't get out of bed, but on others I can, so there's a "yes" in that little box.

I'm much better now by the way. Lots of physiotherapy and a healthy lifestyle got me to a stage where I can walk into the office with my head held high save for a dicky eye and a bit of a limp. But I am still an passionate campaigner for disabled people's rights.

So when I heard that ATOS, a company that was willing to pay the penalty so it could get out of its highly criticised contract with the DWP had been given a further £10m of taxpayers money to keep on ruining lives, instead of paying in to society for its monumental bork-ups, a little part of me died inside.

The government claims that it's because it doesn't have time to sort out a replacement system within the notice period in ATOS' contract. Now then. Where have we heard something like that recently?

Oh yes, I remember. In April, the self-same government paid £5m of your hard-earned cash to Microsoft to extend support for Windows XP for another year for the same reason - it hadn't got its act together.

In March the entire Westminster computer infrastructure had come crashing down because some bright spark had listened to a sales pitch from Microsoft suggesting that renting Office 365 was a good idea, but the engineers screwed the pooch and caused weeks of lagging, freezing, crashing and the inability to watch In The Night Garden between cabinet meetings. The whole thing was ninky-nonked.

This switch to Microsoft's rent-a-cloud scheme came just weeks after Frances Maude MP had said that he was looking into open source software to save the public purse.

This might actually be the only sensible and redeeming thing Maude has ever said, given that he was instrumental in promoting the idea that the elderly, poor and disabled would have to apply for their benefits exclusively online, without thinking through the lack of access to computers among these groups, and indeed their inability to use them.

He even described such people as "refusniks" and offered them a free lesson, which was rather like donning a big French wig and shouting, "Let them eat Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing."

And that's not to mention the fact that, at the time, the website behind benefits applications only supported computers running Windows XP and Internet Explorer 6.

At the other end of the spectrum, huge swathes of government departments don't have public facing email addresses yet. Regularly during my illness, I was asked to send evidence of my incompetent legs via a fax machine. This is presumably because at some point the central purchasing unit had bought a million reams of thermal paper that was blocking the corner of the part of the office where Esther McVey keeps her faces.

Then there's the abandoned NHS computer system that cost £12bn for centralising records, and when I first moved to London, I was part of a pilot for the then state-owned Royal Mail - under its shortlived Consignia moniker - testing a CRM system from Siebel, rumoured to have cost $18m of a projected $2.3bn over the 10-year contract, had it run to completion.

I'm not being in any way partisan here, though my politics are no secret. But why is it that administrations from both sides of the house get IT so wrong? How can they be this out of touch with reality that mistakes, failed projects and failures to act have cost the UK public billions of pounds - the sort of money that could have kept libraries and youth clubs open?

After racking my brains for some time, I have a hunch. It's the Millenium Bug's fault. Remember how terrified we all were? Remember the adverts? Remember the threats of the year 2000 being a post-apocalyptic nightmare where the UK spent £25bn - more per head than any other nation and then nothing happened?

Somewhere in the heads of government ministers and advisers, I reckon there's the thought "fool me once, shame on you". The importance of investment in the right kinds of IT has taken a battering and then along come the slick salespeople from the big corporations selling completely unsuitable lock, stock and barrel solutions that simply don't fit the bill.

Last week, the Y2K bug caused something of a ruckus in the US, with long dead citizens being called up for the military draft. Ironically, Westminster's nonchalance and complete lack of understanding of IT over the past 14 years has led us the same way, so now we live in a country where a coma patient, never expected to wake up, can be told by a machine that they are fit for work and to stop lazing about and get down the job centre pronto.

You and I are sitting here now, and with our combined knowledge, we know that all these problems I've described were actually pretty easily fixable, and the cost savings of getting this stuff right would amount to millions, or more likely, billions. So who on earth is filling the decision makers heads with such utter rubbish?

I think I am going to hibernate like Rip Van Winkle. Wake me up when UK government IT policy makes sense. But do it before 2038 because apparently there's another millenium bug due then. µ

 

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