Is the AlphaGov prototype worth £261,000?
Responsibility is a unique concept: it can only reside and inhere in a single individual. You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished. You may delegate it, but it is still with you. You may disclaim it, but you cannot divest yourself of it. Even if you do not recognize it or admit its presence, you cannot escape it. If responsibility is rightfully yours, no evasion, or ignorance, or passing the blame can shift the burden to someone else. Unless you can point your finger at the person who is responsible when something goes wrong, then you have never had anyone really responsible.
–Admiral Hyman G Rickover, USN
I’ve had a been in my bonnet for a long time about public sector IT. For the past eight years, I’ve advised a central government department on matters relating to information security and, during that time, I’ve seen plenty of evidence that the government struggles to do IT projects (of any size) effectively, due to a lack of commercial expertise, and I’ve witnessed at first hand some absolutely shocking behaviour on the part of IT suppliers which, quite frankly, borders on the fraudulent and would simply not be accepted by a private sector client.
I also have strong opinions on the government’s use of high-profile experts in areas like entrepreneurship, the Internet, cyber security, etc.
So, as you can imagine, my ears pricked up when I read this tweet, so I dug a little deeper and discovered that the AlphaGov project is essentially a £261,000 (+VAT) project to build a prototype of a single government website where you can access all government services. It looks very pretty. However, the first thing I clicked on (“Pay your Council Tax”) resulted in me being asked where I lived and then redirected to my local council’s website, which leaves me thinking “What’s the point?”
Now, fair enough, it’s only a prototype, but if the prototype cost over a quarter of a million pounds, how much will the full thing end up costing and what benefits will it reap?
According to one of the AlphaGov team, the government’s £128m annual bill for websites “could be reduced by more than 50%” and, what’s more, if people did just one monthly government transaction via AlphaGov, that “could save the government £1bn each year“, and a PwC report on “The Economic Case for Digital Inclusion” for “Champion for Digital Inclusion”, Martha Lane Fox (who has been far more successful in promoting herself as a public sector figurehead than she was at creating value for investors who bought shares in Lastminute.com’s floatation) was cited as the “economic case” for AlphaGov.
Now, I very strongly believe that building a strong, logical, detailed benefits case for an IT project is massively important. Project approval decisions are normally based on an assessment of the project cost versus its project benefits. For me, the prospect of getting a benefits case wrong is not an attractive one, given the potential for wasting money and the knock-on impact for my reputation. So, I spend a lot of time researching, number-crunching, chasing down details, checking dependencies, eliminating as much uncertainty as I can and ensuring that the logic and calculations behind the benefits (particularly the financial ones) are correct, logical, easily understood and, perhaps most importantly, independently verifiable.
I don’t like words like “could” and “should” because they imply both uncertainty and a unwillingness on the part of the author to take responsibility for the prediction. I prefer to use the words “will” or “shall”, or, if uncertainty is unavoidable, I’ll aim to make a prediction that I’m happy to put my name against, and if I’m just guesstimating, I make that crystal clear.
So, the AlphaGov team’s use of the word “could” lit up a warning light. It’s very easy to claim that reducing the number of government websites could reduce the expenditure on those websites but it turns out that the AlphaGov team don’t seem to be able to explain, for example, how many jobs would be eliminated by the move, which makes me wonder whether this “more than 50%” estimate is anything more than a finger-in-the-air guesstimate. I had a look through the report they cited but there didn’t seem to be anything in there about the potential savings from reducing the number of government websites.
I did, however, find some mention of the potential benefits of getting people to switch to using online channels for transactions with the government: “If all digitally excluded adults got online and made just one digital contact each month instead of using another channel, this would save an estimated £900 million per annum.”
So, I have two problems here. The first is that AlphaGov seem to be rounding £900m up to £1bn, which is not how I like to do things. The second is that they’re claiming that this benefit would derive from the AlphaGov website whereas it’s pretty clear (to me, at least) from the report that it would derive from the transaction being executed via any online channel, not necessarily AlphaGov. In other words, the AlphaGov team are misappropriating a benefits case that was put together to make the case for getting digitally excluded adults online, and claiming that the same benefit “could” result from the AlphaGov website.
Bottom line? I’m not convinced. £261,000 seems to be an awful lot of money to spend on a prototype. The benefits being put forward for the full website don’t seem to have been well thought through. I also question why the people who are working on the prototype (and who, therefore, presumably stand to benefit if the full project is given the go-ahead) are the ones trying to justify it.
Is it too much to ask, in this age of government openness, transparency and accountability, that the benefits cases for projects like this be published, so that we can all review them? Perhaps more importantly, can it be made clear who is to be held responsible when these massively expensive IT projects go wrong?