I recently penned the following for my local
No2ID mailing list (the Camden & Islington
For what it's worth, I worked briefly on one of the failed Government IT
projects mentioned in the Guardian
referenced on this list a couple of days back. I just wanted to share a
brief perspective of that, in case it's useful or interesting for anyone
contemplating the possible woes of the Government's national ID card and
The consultants on projects like this have tailored their behaviour to
maximise profits in the environment they find themselves in. That is to
be expected - so long as they operate within the law they can be neither
blamed for that nor expected to change of their own accord.
The stratagems they use to maximise profits include a thorough sabotage
of project technical deliverables, such that projects appear to make
progress towards achievable goals, thus avoiding cancellation, but in
actuality will require endless rounds of deep rework and extra funding
in order to deliver a system actually does anything useful.
Every extra pound spent in this way is an extra pound billed to the
client (the Government), and every pound billed earns markups and
ongoing overheads. So for the contractors, the way to make the most
money is to drag the project on for as long possible, spending as much
money as they can along the way, without ever actually delivering
anything that works. The results of incentivising contractors this way
speak for themselves.
Of course, if such abuses were too explicit, that would give the client
a means to sue and wriggle out of contracts, jeopardising future income.
Fortunately for the contractors, the process of producing large (or even
medium-sized) IT systems is difficult and murky enough for the desired
disruption to be practically self-organising, given the correct
environment for incubation. Badly-judged technical architecture,
addiction to proprietary standards, wishy-washy technical leadership,
and good old-fashioned hiding of incompetence using imaginative
misrepresentation, these will pretty much do the job. Black-ops meetings
in smoke-filled rooms are undoubtedly only used as a last resort, and
did not, during the period of my employment, produce any requirement to
directly solicit the services of my own pay grade as a saboteur.
Presumably this state of affairs persists because Government actors are
not being held accountable for the success or otherwise of projects
under their control. If that were to change, then the Government could
possibly improve the situation by lowering the barriers to entry for
competing IT consultants and contractors, and showing some negotiating
guts to restructure the way contractors are rewarded, thus introducing
some real competition amongst technology providers to deliver something
that actually works.
That this hasn't already happened says to me that Government actors are
ensnared in some sort of corruption - by which I don't necessarily mean
an explicitly dishonest kind. The situation could charitably be
interpreted to include what I term 'passive
corruption' - the kind of
poorly aligned incentives or incompetence which leads to similar
outcomes as traditional corruption. (For more thoughts on how passive
corruption of this kind affects society, see the excellent writings of
While it's in all our interests for this situation to get fixed in order
to improve our Government's effectiveness, I see no hope that this will
happen soon. Fortunately for No2ID this sad state of affairs provides us
with the ammunition that the ID card and database projects are unlikely
to work well, and are likely to cost significantly more than current
projections, which I agree should be exploited as has been outlined
adroitly by others, on this list and elsewhere.