News Analysis – Yes, we have no disasters.

The UK computer industry trade body believes there is no such thing as a government IT disaster, despite a host of embarrassing delays and shut-downs of the Inland Revenue’s self-assessment website.

The latest issue to emanate from the Revenue’s IT service has been its recent announcement to slow down service plans due to the chronic global lack of skilled personnel that has gripped most organisations across the world.

As a result, projects such as implementing plans to reduce the risk of tax or national insurance losses in insolvencies and the policing of arrangements that allow taxpayers time to pay have been put back.

This follows a series of delays with the government’s flagship Revenue self-assessment website and the site having to shut-down for testing – not to mention the fact the Cabinet Office has still to replace former e-envoy Alex Allan who resigned due to his wife’s ill-health.

But according to John Higgins, director general of the Computing Services and Software Association, public service IT projects should be spared criticism and instead should be thought of as ‘drivers for business change’.

Speaking last week at a meeting of the parliamentary IT committee, Higgins said government needs to consider its approach to implementing new technology, to ‘realise the business benefits’, and that the relationship between government and the computer industry needs to be worked on.

Meanwhile, social security secretary Alistair Darling admitted to parliament that his department’s current IT network and office infrastructure would not be able to support the government’s modernisation plans.

However, Cabinet Office minister Ian McCartney moved quickly to quash speculation that the personal portal project, UK Online, was once again behind schedule. McCartney reminded MPs that the portal is due to go live this month with a ‘life events’ section offering a ‘new way to access all UK government information’.

He reiterated that 70% of all public services are expected to be online by 2002 and that all services will be online by 2005. A spokesman for the Cabinet Office says: ‘We will continue to work closely to develop e-business strategies in meeting the 2005 targets.’

The government has also decided to take control of the government gateway project to build the central nervous system for its joined-up services.

Microsoft has taken responsibility for the overall solution, with Cable & Wireless, Viacode and PA Consulting taking smaller sections of the development.

The gateway, due to go live in 2001, is at the centre of the UK e-government strategy. It is supposed to filter information from individual agencies’ systems onto the UK Online government internet portal.

In a bid to stem the number of public-sector IT problems, the government and industry have come together to form a ‘senior forum’ body involving four working groups from business and the civil service.

‘Already there is political will and good personnel in the civil service, now we’ve got the commitment in the industry to get involved in making a change and not just sit on the sidelines – industry is putting its head above the parapet,’ Higgins told the committee.

But despite good intentions the fact remains that the Revenue has admitted it is suffering as a result of a shortage of skilled staff to look after their systems.

The situation shows no sign of abating either after the Hays group found UK e-businesses are planning pay rises more than twice the national average in a bid to retain their staff.

A spokesman for the company says: ‘The demand for e-skills has not subsided.

Some 62% of the organisations we questioned said that resourcing was their highest priority. Some 37% gave expansion as a main reason for recruiting, 34% cited staff turnover and 28% new business opportunities.’

But the Cabinet Office is adamant all of its targets will be met. A spokesman says: ‘There is nothing to suggest our deadlines will change or that we will be reviewing these target dates.’

A Revenue spokeswoman adds it is continuing to search for highly skilled IT staff to ensure the faster implementation of e-initiatives.

She says: ‘We are always looking to recruit more suitable IT staff and this is set to continue into the future.’

The Cabinet Office is set to unveil a progress report in the new year.

It should make for interesting reading and maybe then we will all know whether the government really is on track for meeting its deadlines.

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