Thursday, March 02, 2006

"The Smoking Gun Of Database Fiascos"

Those of you who watched yesterday's Newsnight will have heard how ten years after Dunblane, the government's long-promised National Firearms Licensing Management System (NFLMS) is still not working. Even in the voluminous annals of government IT fiascos, for sheer bungling incompetence, the NFLMS project takes some beating.

Tony Blair promised it right back when he first became PM. In those innocent far-off days, most people still imagined he was a "pretty straight sort of guy". So when in his very first fortnight he personally invited the Dunblane parents to tea at Number Ten, everyone didn't immediately think "oh, here's another vomit-inducing display of Blairite grandstanding- pass the sickbag". They actually expected early results.

And the NFLMS quickly passed into law under the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, intended to provide police forces across England and Wales with a searchable register of all firearms certificate holders, accessible via the Police National Computer (PNC). And yes, it's actually written into the Act:

"39. - (1) There shall be established a central register of all persons who have applied for a firearm or shot gun certificate.

(2) The register shall-

(a) record a suitable identifying number for each person to whom a certificate is issued; and

(b) be kept by means of a computer which provides access on-line to all police forces."


So what's gone so spectacularly, hopelessly, catastrophically wrong?

The specialist IT magazine Computing has been following the story for years, and they have branded it the smoking gun of database fiascos:

"There has been trouble printing firearm certificates, problems with the bandwidth required to run the system, and data quality difficulties when the system interfaces with force databases... the NFLMS does not work with the PNC."

Which means it isn't fit for purpose. Is that because the technology is "leading edge" as the Home office has apparently suggested?

"The firearms licensing system should not be complicated. It will hold just a few hundred thousand records, compared with the millions that reside in other databases. It seems preposterous that it could take nine years to install what is essentially a simple records database."

Preposterous. That sums up quite a lot of government IT.

In the measured words of Computing's conclusion, the NFLMS "does not bode well for future government IT projects".

Like for example the far more complex and challenging ID cards project. Or the ongoing National Programme for IT, which is causing so much expense and disruption for the NHS.

There are two conclusions.

First, merely legislating for something doesn't make it happen. And that applies just as much to national databases just as it does to all those "bans" (the "ban" on fox-hunting, the "ban" on drivers using hand-held mobile phones, the "ban" on bad guys owning firearms, and the other 1001 bans this government has ineffectually enacted).

Second, Big Government and IT are always a catastrophic mix. Always.

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