Why Horizon is just tip of the iceberg for Whitehall’s crumbling IT

“Horizon is an extreme example of this but from a technical point of view there are other systems that are similarly parlous and poorly designed,” says Mike Bracken, who ran the Government Digital Service and is a founding partner at the Public Digital consultancy. 

He adds that the Post Office scandal was made worse by inadequate technical knowledge and governance. 

“The other key issue with Horizon is that the Post Office was judge and jury and could choose to prosecute.”

Britain was once a world leader in major IT systems. Colossus, the pioneering programmable computer used by the Bletchley Park codebreakers during the Second World War, was actually designed by a Post Office engineer.

The Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency was credited with developing technical skills within government until it was wound down at the end of the century.

Instead, in the Nineties, successive governments embarked on a series of giant IT projects, outsourced to a handful of large companies. 

In 1994, Inland Revenue awarded a 10-year £3bn contract to the US software giant EDS, founded by the two-time presidential candidate Ross Perot. As part of the deal, 1,900 IT staff at Inland Revenue moved to the company.

The deal would eventually go wrong when EDS’s system failed to handle new tax credits, but at first it was seen as enough of a success to be imitated across the public sector. Enormous contracts were awarded, almost exclusively to the major IT companies large enough to handle them: the likes of Capgemini, Accenture, IBM – and Fujitsu.

Helen Margetts, a professor of internet and society at the Oxford Institute and director of the Alan Turing Institute’s Public Policy Programme, says this separated Britain from many other countries modernising their own systems.

“What was unique about the UK was the size and length of the contracts, these were really big contracts that fewer and fewer companies could bid for, we were outsourcing entire IT divisions,” she says. 

“All the expertise was stripped out. Contracts got bigger and bigger and people in government became less and less keen on being involved. The companies promised to take over all the misery and risk of these great big contracts.”

Very public failures such as the fiasco around the National Programme for IT at the NHS, combined with pressure on the public finances, led the Coalition government to declare in 2010 that the era of “mega IT contracts” had come to an end.

Techies returned to Whitehall as part of a Government Digital Service division, which led to relative successes such as the unified gov.uk website.

However, reversing the mistakes of the last three decades has been slow. Fujitsu has won £4.9bn of public contracts since a court found in 2019 that the Horizon system was at fault. 

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