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The Famous Five Invade the UK
on 12 July 2006
This is a detailed history, and a coruscating critique of New Labour's seemingly never ending and increasingly pathological infatuation with the major management and IT consultancies recycling their obvious and faddish nonsense round the world, with the UK providing the easiest and juiciest pickings. Given the near-universal commercial secrecy of the deals between the consultancies and the public sector, it is hardly surprising that there are some gaps in the costings - but Craig and Brooks seem to have come up with pretty good estimates from secondary sources and insider guesstimates. The numbers are jaw-dropping.
The authors clearly have a great deal of experience in IT consultancies (that Craig has worked in the industry for many years is irrelevant). Their account of the serial disasters in IT systems in the UK (Criminal Records Bureau, Inland Revenue, Child Support Agency, Passport Agency etc, etc) shows that New Labour is congenitally incapable of learning from its ritual mistakes, wonderfully aided in their mass-narcosis by departments themselves widely invaded by consultants who increasingly rapidly whizz round the revolving doors between the public and private sectors, and who then magic up their own self-adulatory end of term reports. Only the Commons Public Accounts Committee emerges honourably as any kind of brake on the stupidity of government departments being taken in by this bilge, and it is the verbatim accounts of exchanges in this Committee that provide the most hilariously tragic paragraphs in the book. It's not the authors' fault that the exchanges are farcical (see earlier review); the questions asked are sound and frequently hard-hitting.
The almost incomprehensible gullibility and near-criminal wastefulness of procurement within the Ministry of Defence is outlined, but the most detailed case study is that of the NHS National Project for Information Technology, now called Connecting for Health. From my reading of the serious press, this appears to be an exhaustive and accurate critique of the largest IT project ever undertaken - anywhere - and poised on the cusp of the most spectacular collapse of all the many disastrous IT initiatives of this Government. But there ARE good things in the project, and some obvious solutions for preserving these, while ditching the useless and harmful, are proffered. Tragically, for a government so apparently obsessed with small business, the multiple small companies that produced so much niche and specialist software, much of it for healthcare, have been ruthlessly elbowed out by the new providers of gargantuan centralised systems.
Finally, some broader solutions are explored. The USA recognised the gravy train as far back as 1996, and legislated to prevent the worse excesses of the consultancy industry; in addition, insider information is encouraged, with financial rewards for those who root out scams. In the UK, the consultancy industry appears, from this account, to be completely out of control, and New Labour is now so nearly coterminous with it that even if they were able to recognise the problem (which they can't), and wanted to extract themselves from it (which they don't), the absorption is now probably irreversible. Please read this deeply upsetting book, and get all your friends in the Public Sector to buy it as well. It just might have an effect. All other hope is utterly lost.