IT Spend Analysis of UK Government U-Turns in 2020 (so far)

There have been 10 UK Government U-Turns so far in 2020. Each change will have had an associated IT change cost. This is my best personal assessment of what each of these changes would likely have cost. I will provide justification for each of my assumptions and will tend towards a lower possible range. I will t-shirt size each U-turn using Low (£500k), Medium (£2-5m), High (£10m) and Very High (£50m+) as thresholds.

U-Turn Number 1: Testing In The Community 12th March – IT cost assessment: Low (circa less than £500k sunk cost)

  • This U-Turn was a retraction towards testing in hospitals rather than testing in the community. There would have been a ‘sunk’ IT cost for the testing in the community work. This testing would have involved Public Health England implementing a field service for remote swab testing and delivery of those swabs to test centres. The IT required would have extended PHE’s time booking system and resource planning. IT changes to these systems would have had IT costs. As this was scrapped relatively early we can assume that there would have been no further licence of infrastructure costs.

U-Turn Number 2: Face Coverings – IT cost assessment: Zero

  • No IT changes as this was a policy and information change.

U-Turn Number 3: NHS visa surcharge – IT cost assessment: Medium (£2-5 million sunk cost)

  • The NHS surcharge has been around since 2015 and is paid when applying for a UK visa. There are a number of applicants who do not have to pay it. The payment method is an online transaction (or cash if from North Korea). The government U-turn means scrapping an existing process and an IT solution that is less than 5 years old. Making the assumption that any online electronic payment solution (at UK government rates) would cost at minimum £0.5m to implement added to the integration costs (£0.75m) with UK visa system and vetting services within (another £0.75m) NHS trusts it is not unreasonable to expect a £2million sunk cost. The service is still available here.

U-Turn Number 4: NHS Staff Bereavement Scheme – IT Cost Assessment: Low (£500k as predominantly configuration changes)

  • The bereavement scheme, introduced in April, initially excluded cleaners, porters and social care workers. Introducing more groups would have incurred some configuration changes to the claims process and new infrastructure costs. £100k would be a low assessment for implementing these changes.

U-Turn Number 5: MP Proxy voting – IT Cost Assessment: Zero (no actual change)

  • The government had to U-turn to allow shielding MPs to vote by proxy. The remote proxy voting system will have had an IT cost but as no IT systems were removed there is no sunk cost for this U-turn. The introduction of a secure proxy voting system will have a necessary cost.

U-Turn Number 6: Re-opening schools – IT Cost Assessment: Medium (£2-5m as schools will have scaled IT for different re-openings)

  • The school re-opening would have forced each individual school to scale its IT solutions according to the expected demand. Centralisation of IT across the UK’s 33,000 schools provides an economy of scale but there will still have been significant unnecessary overspend caused by a late U-turn.

U-Turn Number 7: National school meal vouchers – IT Cost Assessment: Medium (£2-5m for claims process and roll-out)

  • The introduction of a national school meal voucher system required an immediate build of an IT claims and spend system. It will also have required IT investment in each supplier’s ability to scale. As this was predominantly a procedural and sizing change we can assume that the IT impact would have been relative to the size of the roll-out. For this reason I’m assessing this as having a medium impact.

U-Turn Number 8: UK Contact-tracing app – IT Cost Assessment: High (£10m+ major investment on a non-usable disliked technology)

  • As of June 2020 we know that the cost of the UK tracing app was £11.8m. It is not unreasonable to expect further costs to have been spent on testing across the Isle of Wight and preparing for national rollout.

U-Turn 9: Local contact tracers – IT Cost Assessment: Very High (£50m+ with major write-off of a centralised contract tracing service)

  • The centralised contact tracing model had its own IT solutions which are now inappropriate for scaled local use. The centralised solution had scaled infrastructure and licences for 18,000 users. It would have had a communications service equivalently scaled. The local authority solutions could not have easily been separated from the national solution meaning a lot of new build and completely new infrastructure. The costs would be very high because it has to include the completely throw away nature of the national solution and the costs of multiple stand-alone local authority solutions.

U-Turn 10: A-level and GCSE results – IT Cost Assessment: Medium (£2-5m for building and implementing algorithm and significant testing costs)

  • The government was forced to act after A-level grades were downgraded through a controversial algorithm developed by the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation, leading to almost 40 % of grades awarded being worse than expected by pupils, parents and teachers. This service would have had to incur a cost to model, develop and test. It would needed to have been developed in less that 3 months and to be applied across a large data set of disparate data feeds. Different algorithms, and builds, would need to have been applied for GCSEs and A-levels.

Conclusion: Total Cost Very High (Low estimate £150m+)

Change is the most expensive process in IT. Fast change is even more expensive. Waste also incurs a missed opportunity cost of what else could be done with the capital investment. It also creates a culture of inefficiency where requirements become designed to handle all possible future change rather than focusing on immediate deliverables. All of these U-turn costs were avoidable. All governments should be held to account on the waste associated with U-turn changes.

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