Parliamentary hearing on IT-projects, security & privacy

On June 1st 2012 the Dutch government’s Parliamentary working group on government IT-projects held a hearing of experts. My written contribution below. Capture of videostream… (in Dutch). Dutch journalist Brenno de Winter published his thoughts here. Column on this published the week after here.

Introduction – IT and the Dutch national government
Andromeda M31Universality is an assumption of astrophysics that states that all phenomena, everywhere, behave as we observe them from Earth. I’m assuming that phenomena I have observed in specific government IT projects also occur in government IT projects that I have less infromation about (this is usually caused by the poor implementation of Freedom Of Information Acts, see the notes of Mr de Winter).

IT project management is currently based on a rather naive model of reality – "smart entrepreneurs compete on a level playing field for the favours of the government, which then procures with insight and vision." However, this model does not adequately predict the observed outcome of the projects. Whence this group.

Another model would be "a corrupt swamp with the wrong incentives, populated by sharks and incompetent clowns". This model has the advantage of perfectly predicting the observed outcomes.

The price of outsourcing everything
No vision, no vigour, no knowledge, and especially no ambition to do anything to improve on any of these. This is the overarching theme of all government IT projects I have experienced both on the inside and externally. And I believe is the fundamental cause of the vast majority of practical problems the group wishes to understand.

From Knowledgenet to the National EHR, the Whale project, voting computers, the public transport card, and the failed attempt to break the monopoly of large software vendors – NOiV … the knee-jerk response remains the same: to reduce a social problem to a technical project that can then be quickly outsourced to IT suppliers and/or advisors. The societal aspects are quickly lost once the train of political promises, commercial interests and project logic leaves the station and becomes unstoppable. Even the parliamentary group on IT projects aims to outsource part of its work to an external company. The chances are that the selected external company will already have as its main selling-point an umbrella contract with the national government.  Probably this company will already have been advisors on one or more of the projects that may be under investigation.

In my experience as an advisor of a large government project (from the list of projects provided by the work group), I had to advise another consultant on how to hire yet other outside consultants to perform a security audit. The argument that the government has difficulty in hiring and retaining specialised expertise may be true in specific cases, but in reality, most of the hired ”IT workers” have no specialist expertise. Often they are generalists and/or project managers without much substantive technical knowledge. The inability of government to attract competent personnel should be seen as a problem that needs to be solved and not as an immutable law of nature. If we truly want something to change, we really need to be willing to change anything/everything.

Focus of the research proposal: look at the forest, not at the trees
By focusing on individual projects it is likely that the working group will only look at operational issues within these projects. The broader, underlying causes remain hidden, yet that is precisely where many failures begin. Moreover, it is especially important to look at such overarching issues as potential factors in future projects.

If anything has become clear since the Diginotar case, it is the total lack of accountability or sanctions subsequent to the failure of both executive and supervisory organisations and officials. Suppliers and officials who have endangered the security of citizens and the functioning of the state have largely remained in  position, free to repeat their mistakes in a few more years. Evaluation, in this context, is therefore only useful if lessons learned from them can be used to prevent a repetition of similar birth defects in new projects in the future.

Analyse context: causes and societal consequences of failure
When the EHR project was cancelled by the Senate, there was great indignation about the "wasted" 300 million Euros that had been spent. In my view, the 300 million is not the issue we should be focusing on. If the figures used by the Health Ministry and Nictiz concerning the need for the EHR system were correct, the real costs of the failure of the EHR system over the past 12 years are more than 20,000 lives and 16 billion Euros.

Therefore the real question is why Nictiz on the one hand did not have either the budget or the required mandate to deal with the problem, and on the other hand why this national disaster was not the most important issue for the Health Ministry to address.  Why did the leadership of the Ministry not have its hand on the wheel, with weekly reports to the Cabinet and parliament?

If the publicly-stated figures are incorrect, Parliament has been misinformed for more than 12 years and the project should never have been started. Either way, something went very wrong and it had very little to do with the technical aspects of the project (although there was enough to criticise there as well).

The above example is just one of many cases where the formal administrative motivation for a project and subsequently allocated funds and mandates bear no logical relationship.

Also the projects concerning the introduction of voting computers and the public transport card, had logical holes of Alice-in-Wonderland-like proportions. A very high level of public transparency about new projects here would probably have enabled citizens to provide both solicited and unsolicited assistance to the government in finding these holes.

It would also help to restore some confidence amongst citizens, whose faith has been repeatedly  dented. On the one hand the government uses its own incompetence as an excuse for failure, while on the other hand two weeks later it will ask its citizens to rely on its ability to finish a new megalomaniac techno-fix for a complex social issue. The current deep lack of credibility ultimately becomes a question of legitimacy.

Selection criteria for examining IT projects:

  • Extent to which the original official motivations and assumptions were not investigated or found not to be substantiated. What was the problem? How would the proposed IT project fix this? Why was the gap between policy and reality not foreseen?
  • Social costs of not solving a problem (by the failure of the project); these are often multiples of the cost of the IT project itself.
  • Damage to citizens and their rights because of the failure of project or because of incorrect technical and organisational choices made during implementation.

IT projects the working group hould include in the investigation:

  • The EHR
  • The public transport card
  • The NOiV & the NCA investigation into the failure of this policy.
  • GOLD / DWR – introduction of the ‘standardised’ workplace for the national government between 2004 and today.

Doublethink, Waiting for the Big One, Doctor doctor, Asbestos, Gran knows why,  (my columns)

My Court of Audit questions for investigation into national openstandards and opensource policy 2010

Prof. Eben Moglen explains the big societal picture (45 min speech) – must watch!