IT system failures continued to plague the UK government this week, when as many as 80,000 civil servants working for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) had to deal with what is being described as the biggest computer crash in government history.
The DWP was carrying out a "routine software upgrade" on Monday when the system crashed, leaving around 80 percent of the department's 100,000 desk machines disrupted or completely shut down, a DWP spokeswoman said Friday. The problems lasted through most of Thursday, but the "majority of our system is up and running now," she said.
Microsoft and EDS (Electronic Data Systems) run the DWP's network as part of a £2bn information technology contract.
Microsoft issued a short statement on Friday saying that it worked closely with its partners to help rectify the situation and support the DWP, but declined any further comment. Representatives from EDS could not immediately be reached for comment.
The head of the DWP, the government secretary Alan Johnson, has promised an internal inquiry into the systems failure and the role Microsoft, of Redmond, Washington, and EDS, of Plano, Texas, played in the crisis.
The DWP, which is responsible for providing a variety of state benefits to about 24 million people, attempted to downplay the effect the computer problems will have on its customers, saying that the department's mainframe computers were not affected. "There will be delays with new and amended benefit claims, but we have been dealing with the problems though our contingency plans and the disruptions will be minimal," the DWP spokeswoman said.
It is believed that the crash was caused when an incompatible system was downloaded on to the entire network, forcing employees to send faxes because they couldn't access their email accounts and to fill out some payment checks by hand.
The IT failure was only the latest in a string of serious computer system problems experienced by the department. The DWP's Child Support Agency (CSA) has been struggling with a £456m system from EDS that has made payments to only one in eight single parents awaiting them. Last week, Johnson told a House of Commons Parliamentary Select Committee that he is considering shutting down the child-support case management and telephony system, and Doug Smith, the chief executive of the CSA, resigned from his job.
On Friday the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, Mark Serwotka, called on the government to hold off on its plans to cut 30,000 jobs in the DWP on the basis of IT improvements, in light of the computer crisis. Earlier this year, the government announced it plans to eliminate 104,000 civil servant jobs across the government based in part on increased efficiencies gained though new IT systems.
Since 2001, the DWP has spent around £4.25bn on various IT projects, including the CSA system. According to a report it submitted to a Parliament Select Committee, the department has spent £306.7m on management and IT consultancy, £51.5m on staff substitutions and contractors and £54.3m on professional services.
The UK's public sector IT projects in 2003/4 are expected to cost more than £12.4bn, but UK government IT projects have often been accused of being over-ambitious and prone to disastrous delays and cost overruns.
Beyond the DWP, further examples include the benefit-payment card program from the Post Office, the Department of Social Security and International Computers, which fell apart after three years and £300m; software problems that delayed the Swanwick air traffic control centre and have since been blamed for a near collision between two airplanes; the disruption wrought on thousands of people with travel plans in 1999 by the Passport Office's new computer system, and the National Probation Service's case-record and management system which was abandoned in 2001 after it was revealed the project was expected to be two years late and 70 percent over budget.