Our management consultancy columnist, Mick James, argues the scale and complexity of the ID cards scheme are too tempting for consultancies to resist.

The lure of the ID cards project

My correspondent John Baker wonders if it might not be time to revisit the whole issue of ID cards, consultancy and politics in the wake of the latest fiasco regarding the loss of data by HMRC. I have to say that although I oppose ID cards to the extent of contemplating civil disobedience when they come in, I have given up all hope that the government can be deflected. There was a faint glimmer of hope that Gordon Brown might ditch the whole thing while purging himself of the Blair legacy, but that has surely faded. Will the HMRC disaster prompt a U-turn? Ministerial statements seem to have ruled that out.

But where does this leave the consultancy industry? They will be after all the "blunt instruments" in this particular operation. My correspondent worries that the scheme will inevitably lead to risks in terms of loss of integrity and reputation, lawsuits and a further deterioration of the public view of consultants.

My initial thought was that surely consultants couldn't be expected to carry the can for whatever horrors a politically-driven ID scheme might bring, but then I read a letter in the Guardian from the Open University's Dr Ivan Horrocks. This firmly ascribes at least part of the blame for the HMRC cock-up to the role that "private-sector ideas, practices and personnel play in creating the environment and systems in which such failings take place," and rails about the number of senior personnel (including some past and current ministers) who are either on secondment from, or who were previously employed by, consultancies, concluding that "civil servants are simply easy targets." I have to say this line of argument baffles me: I'm not clear how simply breathing in the poisonous air exhaled by someone once employed in the private sector renders the average civil servant capable of acts of stunning incompetence. Nor do I understand why people who give up lucrative careers in consultancy to become public servants should forever be considered to be fifth columnists for their former paymasters.

But it's clear that when -- and I do mean when -- something goes horribly, fatally wrong with the ID card system, the consultants involved and the consultancy industry and anyone who's ever been a consultant or is married to one will be in the firing line. And quite rightly so, if they've failed to build systems of a sufficient robustness (and probably still quite rightly so if they've failed to document and demarcate and design in a way that avoids them being scapegoated for others' mistakes).

But the fact is that it's pretty much mathematically impossible that a system on the scale proposed can be built to the required levels of integrity and security. Let's face it, if we're really that good, shouldn't we be doing something more worthwhile with our superpowers?

My fears around ID cards aren't so much about privacy and fraud -- by the time the scheme rolls out so much personal data will have already been lost by the government that no-one will have any privacy anyway. It's more that the existence of such an exciting piece of kit as a biometric ID card will be jumped on by everyone from banks and security guards to utilities and public libraries. If anything goes wrong with the system it will lead to kind of civil death until it's sorted out -- which could be some time if the details of everyone in the country whose name begins with J have been accidentally emailed to Nigeria. It could, in fact, lead to actual death, a point made by a cabal of Oxbridge professors in a letter to the joint parliamentary committee on human rights, in which they suggest the ID schemes be suspended "until such time that research and development work has established beyond reasonable doubt that these are capable of operating securely, effectively and economically on the scale envisaged" which is a very polite way of saying, until the 12th of Never (and that's along, long time).

Is it time for consultancies to reconsider their involvement? That was after all the tone of some rather hectoring letters sent out to industry heads by the Tory Party when it finally got its act together and decided -- albeit much too late -- to oppose. At the time I argued that it was an improper approach, and I still believe that. I don't think it's the role of the consultancy industry to try and dissuade the government from any course, unless specifically asked their advice -- that kind of pro-active involvement is genuinely the remit of civil servants, or should be. However, there's nothing to stop individual consultancies demurring, as many did during the NHS National IT Programme.

But the problem with these huge government projects is that they create a sort of vortex into which the largest firms are inexorably drawn. It's not so much the gravitational pull of so much money -- although that can't be ruled out. Nor is it just the seductive lure of technology, which has the power to lead us down so many odd paths. It's more the sheer impossibility of having reached the top of the profession and not being seen to take on ground-breaking projects of such scale and complexity, such glamour and prestige, and yes, of such high levels of risk.

Trying to keep consultants away from the ID card project would be like trying to keep mountaineers away from the North Face of the Eiger. I've always thought mountaineers were a bit daft but I still can't help admiring their pluck. The consultancy industry can sometimes engender similar levels of begrudging respect even when it's at its most hubristic. So while I would warmly urge my readers not to stick their hands in this particular mangle -- for my sake if not for theirs -- I know that there's zero chance that advice will be followed. And while I love being right, I do at least hope that I never have to revisit this particular piece next time I want to crow over my success as a Cassandra.

All views expressed in this article are those of Mick James and do not necessarily reflect the views of Top-Consultant.com and Consultant-News.com.

Contact Mick with your views or suggestions at: mick.james@top-consultant.com
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