Skill up or shut up: Fixing Whitehall's IT disasters is simple - so what's stopping them?

With Whitehall IT skills rarer than hen's teeth there's no hope of government redemption...

IT disasters will continue to plague government for the forseeable future thanks to the lack of IT skills within the corridors of power, argues chief reporter Nick Heath.

Let's face it, when it comes to knowing about technology, your nan would probably give Whitehall a run for its money.

So the conclusion that the government has wasted "an obscene amount of public money" on IT, the verdict of a report published today by the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), is depressingly par for the course.

Westminster IT

The majority of civil servants within Whitehall feel they don't have the IT skills they need to do their jobPhoto: Shutterstock

The report catalogues familiar tales of witless profligacy - Whitehall departments paying up to 10 times more than the private sector for the same IT systems and one government department spending an average of £3,500 for each desktop PC.

Were this sort of procurement to occur in the private sector, it would end with a CIO or CFO finding their way to the nearest Job Centre and shareholders up in arms. In the public sector, there appears no fallout aside from a shrug of the shoulders as we prepare ourselves to hear similar stories the next time Whitehall's IT buying comes under the spotlight. We're simply inured to this level of ineptitude from government.

There is, however, a solution at hand, according to the PASC report. It contends that IT skills are the key to ending this cycle of costly IT failures stretching back more than a decade.

The government needs to skill up or shut up when it comes to tech, according to the report. Should it fail to do so, the public sector will continue to be at the mercy of an "oligopoly" of 18 major tech suppliers, who, according to committee testimony, have been calling the shots on what tech the government should be buying.

If that really is the case, there is no chance that the sorry state of government IT will ever improve.

When it comes to IT skills, the Westminster cupboard is bare - years of outsourcing tech roles to the private sector have systematically stripped away in-house tech expertise. Only last month a survey of civil servants by the National Audit Office found that 84 per cent felt they didn't have the IT skills they need to do their job.

If skills are what is needed to avert further IT disasters, then we better brace ourselves for a slew of fresh mishaps because the pace of IT skills training within government is positively glacial. In the three years since its creation in 2008, the Technology in Business Fast - ahem - Stream programme has placed only 47 staff in 10 departments. It's a laughable figure.

If tech-savvy staff can't be created inside the public sector, perhaps they can be brought in from outside? No, private sector talent will not be riding to the rescue here. At a time of civil service pay freezes and pension cuts, what self-respecting IT manager is going to make the leap from private to public sector?

That leaves Westminster having to rely on the same private consultants and advisers that have led government down the path to IT catastrophe in the past, all the while charging them through the nose for the privilege.

So what chance is there then of Whitehall finally becoming an "intelligent customer" when it comes to buying IT - the only way the committee believes government will end its legacy of tech failure?

As it stands, I'd put the odds about the same as government ministers finally getting that Department of Health diamond-encrusted NHS supercomputer working.

Whitehall claims it is taking control of supplier spending and putting the brakes on the government IT gravy train.

But if clueless civil servants don't even know which way is forward, there is no hope they can keep government IT from coming off the rails.