By Mark Ballard for The Register
This article has been reproduced with permission
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry into the thinking behind ID Cards, published today, found the government had decided what it wanted to do before it had determined if it would even work.
"In view of the potential adverse impact on large numbers of people, it is better that the scheme is late and workable than on time but flawed," the committee report said.
It recommended that the Home Office, which introduced the scheme, "extend the procurement phase to ensure that enough time is taken to gather the necessary scientific evidence and to undertake all the appropriate trials".
The committee even recommended a cross-government consultation as many government bodies had varying ideas about what they wanted to do with ID Cards.
Government trials of the biometric technology it wants to use in ID Cards are planned to occur simultaneously with the procurement, which specifies the system, decides who will develop it, and how much it will cost. But the procurement process should be informed by evidence gathered from the trials.
To date, the committee found, the Home Office had been "unscientific" in its practice of selectively using evidence collected by previous trials to prove its own theories about biometric technology.
"We are surprised and concerned that the Home Office has already chosen the biometrics that it intends to use before finishing the process of gathering evidence," the committee report said.
It added that the Home Office should "act on evidence rather than preference".
The Home Office's consultation on ID Cards had also been inadequate. Industry was doubtful about what the Home Office was doing and sceptical that it had given it proper thought.
Jerry Fishenden, national technology officer at Microsoft, told the committee: "After all these consultations we still do not seem to have had an impact on [Home Office] understanding about what makes for a good identity system."
As the Home Office was lacking inhouse expertise, it was relying on industry to plug the gaps in its knowledge, but it did not conduct adequate consultation with those it would rely on to develop the system.
This lack of inhouse knowledge has been identified before as the cause of government IT failure, the Child Support Agency debacle being a case in point. As it happens, the committee was worried that the signs showed the Home Office had not taken enough notice of the accumulated wisdom of previous IT disasters, as surmised in numerous reports over the last decade.
It was also concerned that the committees set up to guide the ID IT plans had not been "best placed to offer expert advice" because they had few experts. The Home Office also lacked an IT chief, while there was uncertainty about who at the Home Office was in charge of the project.
The Home Office wanted a flexible, staggered approach because it was learning what to do as it went along. But until it fixes its plans, which the committee said should be done "as soon as possible", it will not be able to get the disparate parts of the ID scheme interoperating - i.e. working.
© The Register 2006