Electoral register project bids to win “worst Government IT project” prize

There are many contenders for the “worst Government IT project” crown, but the CORE (Co-ordinated Online Record of Electors) project is a strong contender. Eight years on from me sitting in a meeting being told it would start appearing that autumn, it is still years away from delivery – and has just been put on indefinite hold.

In its original guise of LASER (Local Authorities’ Secure Electoral Register), and now as CORE, the project promised to make all the electoral registers for the country available from one central location, in a consistent data format. Since 2000 political parties have to check the validity of donations they receive, which frequently involves checking a name against the electoral register. However, the registers are currently split amongst several hundred councils, in a myriad of formats and, even if you request to receive all the monthly updates, the records which parties have are frequently partially out of date. The result? A mix of inaccurate checks and lots of time taken up both by parties and council staff in phone and email exchanges dealing with queries.

Back in early 2001 I sat in a consultation meeting where the project was being planned, with the data available on CD (ah! those were the days) and then securely online in early 2002. Eight years on, none of that has been delivered.

The planned delivery dates as of earlier this month were still several years away – and now the Minister of State, Michael Wills, has just announced a new, indefinite, delay in order to review how plans to introduce individual registration will fit with CORE.

The delay is perhaps typical of the last eight years. At one level it is reasonable – how you can you proceed with an electoral register project without looking at how changes in electoral registration might affect it? – but at another level it just shows up bad management. The introduction of individual registration has been discussed, consulted, thought about and chewed over already for many years. And it’s only now the Government has decided to stop and think about how it fits with CORE?

A Government really determined to get a horribly late-running IT project finished would have been working out the implications for CORE in parallel with the electoral registration law changes.

Way back in 2002 Computer Weekly reported that,

One supplier shortlisted for the project said the “snail’s-pace progress” on the initiative was beginning to raise questions over the Government’s determination to push through key IT initiatives. “If every project takes a year before it is signed it does call into question the Government’s commitment to e-government,” he said.

Snail’s pace would have been good.

Meanwhile, in 2005 a House of Commons Select Committee looked at electoral registration:

The lack of apparent progress on the CORE project of particular concern. The Liberal Democrats complained that “there have been various projects and various consultations over the years on which all the main parties have given very similar views and we keep on each year, or each few months, being asked for our views again and giving the same views again and the process does not seem to move forward.” This in part refers to the Local Authority Secure Electoral Register (LASER) project, a forerunner of CORE, which was supposed to achieve the same kind of goals but which ran into the ground. As to the latest initiative, there seems now to be an impasse on agreeing the data standards to be applied in compiling the local registers. Blame for this delay was variously attributed to the Government and to the Electoral Commission by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties and to “an inter-departmental quagmire at an official level” by the Labour party.

The quoted words were penned by myself, and alas that description of the previous four years turned out also to be a pretty good description of the succeeding four too.

One of my favourite memories of this whole saga was when both the Electoral Commission and the Government in fairly quick succession carried out a consultation that went over pretty much the same ground. As a result, I was twice interviewed on the subject, being asked very similar questions each time – by the very same person, who happened to have changed jobs between the two in between the two interviews!

The other favourite memory will be discovering that the Government was fighting the Information Commission for the rights to shred the record of one of my interviews:

The idea, too, that what I said in an interview is so sensitive that it has to be exempted from Freedom of Information requests and the interview notes destroyed makes the interview sound far more interesting than it was. I doubt any terrorist would benefit from knowing my views on the merits of BS7666 and how BFPO addresses should be handled. (Perhaps if you read my words backwards in French a mysterious message revealing the keys to the nation’s nuclear deterrent emerges?)

But the serious point is that huge amounts of time (and hence money) has been spent on getting not very far over the years. The announcement of a further delay has gone pretty much unnoticed in the media. Will anyone end up having to take responsibility for all this?

So far, it would seem not.

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  • The proposals for CORE received virtually no debate when going through Parliament. You’d have thought, given the fuss about a national database being set up for ID cards that the idea (which is substantially similar) merited some concern.

    The reason for shredding your interview notes is obviously linked to the increasing amount of evidence about your terrorist leanings (see LDV passim) 🙂

  • Andrew Suffield 29th Jul '09 - 12:10pm

    Impressive. Government IT projects are always a joke (nobody involved seems to have any clue how to do it), but this one is particularly so due to the simplicity of what they’re trying to do – this is the sort of project that, given fairly modest manpower (half dozen actual developers, plus a couple of unskilled bureaucrats per district), I would expect to have in the bag in 6 months, and fully deployed (ie, running with no outstanding issues, ready to shut down the project) inside 2 years.

    It sounds like they went one step beyond the disaster of “design by committee”, and moved on to the insane realms of “implement by committee”. Questions like “what to do about BS7666 and BFPO?” are not things you need to debate, they’re things that a developer needs to spend an afternoon pounding out a solution to, and if anybody has any issues with how it works, they’re treated as bugs and fixed.

    Heck, if it’s that useful to do this, and the main benefactors are supposed to be the parties for handling of donations, then this is something that could just be done out of Lib Dem party resources, and forget about the government project.

  • This is astonishing. I worked (briefly) for a small 8-man development outfit, of which only 5 were actual coders/developers, and we could have done the job in less than 12 months, and for a fraction of the money I’m sure they’ve already wasted… maybe I should get back into IT and suggest we move into serving public sector contracts… its a goldmine!

  • I can’t understand why it takes 8 years to plan and design what is in effect a name and address database and not much else

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