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  • The Emperor's New Clothes (first published in 2007 as a thinly veiled critique of the NHS National Programme for IT)

    Once upon a time, there lived an Emperor who was exceedingly fond of shiny new technology. His palace was staffed by hundreds of consultants charging an arm and a leg. But the citizens were unhappy because schools and hospitals were decaying, and rats were eating their rubbish. So the consultants told the Emperor that what the nation needed was a strategy for delivering IT-enabled business change, with public services designed around the needs of the citizens. Being a kind Emperor, he told the consultants to make it so.

    In the great city where the Emperor lived, life was always gay. Every day many strangers came to town, and among them were two swindlers. They let it be known that they were systems integrators and change management consultants, and they said they could weave the most magnificent system imaginable. But they warned the Emperor and his consultants that the benefits of this new system were invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid. When asked how much the new system might cost, the swindlers gave him a pitying look, and shrugged their shoulders.

    He paid the two swindlers a large sum of money to start work at once - once they’d signed the contract, which was one metre thick. ‘This is to protect me if it all goes wrong. I don’t understand it, and neither do my consultants or ministers, but my lawyers tell me that we must have a contract.’

    The swindlers set up a project team and pretended to work, though there was little to show for their efforts. ‘I'd like to know how those integrators are getting on with the new system,’ the Emperor thought, but he felt slightly uncomfortable when he remembered that those who were unfit for their position would not be able to see the results. ‘I'll send my honest old minister to see,’ the Emperor decided. ‘He'll be the best one to tell me how the material looks, for he's a sensible man and no one does his duty better.’

    So the honest old minister went to the room where the two swindlers sat working away at their empty desks.

    ‘Heaven help me,’ he thought as his eyes flew wide open, ‘I can't see anything at all’. But he did not say so.

    Both the swindlers begged him to be so kind as to come near to approve the excellent system. They pointed to the empty desks, and the poor old minister stared as hard as he dared. He couldn't see anything, because there was nothing to see. He told the Emperor ‘It’s magnificent and will transform the lives of our citizens.’

    The swindlers at once asked for more money, to get on with the work. But it all went into their pockets.

    Three months later, another minister took over the old minister’s Department. He knew even less about the project or how much it cost. The same thing happened to him that had happened to the former minister. He looked and he looked, but he couldn't see anything.

    ‘Isn't it a beautiful system?’ the swindlers asked him. He declared he was delighted with the beautiful system and the exquisite processes. To the Emperor he said, ‘It held me spellbound.’

    All the town was talking of this splendid system, and the Emperor wanted to see it for himself. But the swindlers told him that the delivery date had slipped by several years, and that they needed more money. The lawyers and consultants didn’t mind, because they were paid by the hour to fix the broken contract by creating even more paper. Eventually (and after many more changes of ministers and civil servants), the system was ready, and the Emperor went to the grand unveiling, accompanied by a small army of public servants. The Emperor proclaimed his pleasure. ‘Some mean spirited journalists have said that it will deliver no benefits at all, and that it’s three years late and ten billion pounds over budget. Let them eat their words once people start to use the new system and see the benefits.’

    Everyone in the streets and the windows said, ‘Oh, how fine is the Emperor's new system! Doesn't it work perfectly? And see how it transforms our lives as citizens!’ Nobody would confess that he couldn't see anything, for that would prove him either unfit for his position, or a fool. No system before was ever such a complete success.

    ‘But it doesn’t work properly, and it’s slow; and it costs the same as 50 new hospitals or employing 100,000 more junior doctors and nurses,’ a little child said. Eventually, the whole town echoed the little boy’s words. The Emperor turned to the little boy and asked him what he’d do. ‘I’d make sure that ministers stick with the programme. They and their civil servants need to be able to answer basic questions like why are we doing it, what’s the scope, how will it be delivered, when will it be delivered, and how much will it cost ? No business case – no system or service. If these questions can’t be answered, we shouldn’t spend a cent. This simplicity needs to be carried through into the contracts (but sadly, it never is). Remember that over-engineered, one sided contracts don’t work. The buyer needs to take some responsibility and risk too; it’s stupid to expect that all of the risk can be transferred to the private sector. Either they’ll fail to deliver or the price will be prohibitive.’ The Emperor listened to these fine words, and then promptly forgot them. First published in 2007 in the magazine for the Society for Computers & Law.

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