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Government secrecy around IT failure will undermine its Big Data plans, says PAC chair

Public Accounts Committee chair Margaret Hodge frustrated by lack of transparency

By Derek Du Preez, Computerworld UK
November 07, 2012 07:20 AM ET

Computerworld UK - Rt Hon Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, has pulled the government's transparency agenda into question by criticising its unwillingness to publish data about struggling IT projects, which in turn undermines its plans for taking advantage of big data.

Speaking at an EMC roundtable this week on how the public sector can best utilise big data technologies, Hodge was particularly critical of the Treasury and its secrecy surrounding the Universal Credit system.

"The government still remains selective about which data it chooses to make available. If you want proper accountability and choice [via big data analytics], then the government has got to be more open," said Hodge.

"For example, the Major Projects Authority is doing some incredibly helpful work trying to assess the quality of major projects as they move through government departments. But they have been told they can't publish the traffic light findings [green, amber, red ratings] on whether or not the projects are at risk or not - because they might be damaging to government."

She added: "I would imagine it's because Universal Credit has got a big red on it."

Universal Credit will merge benefits such as jobseeker's allowance, income support, housing benefit, child tax credit, and working tax credit. The Universal Credit IT system will require real-time data on the earnings of every adult, from a new Pay as You Earn (PAYE) system being developed with HM Revenue & Customs.

The DWP wants the system to be built by April 2013, followed by six months of testing before going live.

When asked if she thought the government would ever publish the traffic light ratings from the Major Projects Authority's work, Hodge replied "no". She also implied that government officials in the Treasury are considering pushing back the go live date for Universal Credit.

She said: "When I have looked at the government's attempts to exploit data to a good public policy purpose, all too often they fail. I think the worst example of this is the National Programme for IT. We wasted billions on a very sensible idea because there was a failure to understand the complexity of the policy they were trying to implement."

Hodge also commented on the government's complex datasets, which could make it difficult to achieve the benefits made possible by analysing big data. A recent Policy Exchange report estimated that cutting edge-performance could in time save the government between APS16 billion and APS33 billion a year.

"There is a problem with consistency of data. Take the Department for Education as an example. The rules that govern the data out of academies is different from the rules that govern the data out of local authority schools. We can't make a comparison of value added investment per pupil. That consistency needs to be secured," she said.

"Definitions also change so quickly for all sorts of reasons. Academies have now moved from being funded by local government, to being funded by central government, for example. This makes it very difficult to make meaningful comparisons over time."

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