Ian Watmore: The eyes have it, when your job is to know every citizen in Britain

The man responsible for the ID-card database is no computer geek - just as well, given the size of the task
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But there is far more to Watmore's job than IT (a term he doesn't like: "I don't recognise 'IT projects' - they are business projects," he says). His team will oversee the Government's controversial identity card and biometric passport schemes, expected to be among the world's most ambitious - and most expensive - database projects. If he says the irises of citizens (another favourite word of his) cannot be scanned for an ID card, the chances are they won't be.

The post of chief information officer could be considered a poisoned chalice. Watmore is the man who carries the can for the Government's IT cock-ups - of which there is a long and distinguished history, including notorious cases involving the Passport Agency and the Child Support Agency. But since he was appointed last September, it's been so far so good. In fact, he jokes, "It's been a bad year for IT disasters."

The former managing director of the consultancy firm Accenture made some big changes on taking charge - like deciding to audit how much the public-sector spends on IT. Amazingly, his predecessors did not keep count, even though the figure probably ran into billions of pounds each year.

Watmore denies that he inherited a shambles but adds: "We do need to know. The belief is we are spending more now than seven years ago, but I am not particularly interested in going back in time."

He gives the first - as far as we know, ever - estimate for public-sector spending on IT: £14bn in the past year. He says that around £140m is being spent to keep old systems running, and that he would like to see more of this money invested in new systems.

Watmore is here to make your life easier, whether it's by allowing you, the "citizen", to renew your car's tax disc online or to book an appointment with a GP using an NHS-wide computer system, rather by phone (he is still working on the latter).

"The story is not the technology," he explains. "We say: 'Can we allow citizens to transact with government in a more convenient and easy-to-use way and to support frontline services?'" Crime, health (there is a £6.2bn project under way to upgrade the NHS's IT systems) and education are his "critical areas", he says.

Citizens were not too happy with the service from the Passport Agency in the summer of 1999 when the introduction of passports for children coincided with a new computer system. Hundreds of people had to cancel their holidays when the agency was unable to issue passports on time. Projects like this one went wrong not because the computer systems were faulty, Watmore argues, but because of "business change management". In simple terms: "They introduced the system in a big bang. The IT sank under the weight of a surge of applications for a brand-new system when it was at its weakest point."

Lessons have been learnt, he insists. They had better be. A Bill to introduce national identity cards with biometric profiles as early as 2008 is currently going through Parliament. No one knows how much an ID card will cost: estimates range from £30 to more than £200 for each holder. A London School of Economics study estimated the project could cost up to £19.2bn to implement. No one really knows how the technology will work in practice, either, particularly in the case of the more complicated and relatively untested area of biometrics. A scanner at an airport may, for example, be able to check that the iris or fingerprint on the ID card matches the holder's, but can it be sure an individual is who his card says he is?

The Home Office, with Watmore's help, has been consulting with the IT industry on the best way to implement the scheme. Watmore says it should be phased in "over quite a long period of time" (he does not say how long). "One of the things we are going to avoid is some single implementation date when the whole country switches to ID cards. That is the sort of problem we have hit in the past with passports."

He says the Home Office could run a pilot ID card scheme for the Criminal Records Bureau, which vets applications from those who want to work with children or vulnerable people. "I am a governor of a school. The use of ID cards could greatly simplify that process."

But will ID cards and separate plans to introduce biometric passports work? Watmore gives a good politician's answer (he is learning fast). "I can't say anything like I know anything is going to happen." Will it be delayed in the tradition of all great government IT projects? "I don't think anyone is naive enough to believe this is an easy project."

This week, Home Office ministers will announce wide-ranging policies designed to transform public services through technology. Watmore wants the Government and the public sector to pool their resources to deliver better services, pointing out that there are 1,300 public sector organisations, all running separate back-office functions such as finance and human resources. "There are differences here but not 1,300 differences [between them]," he says. With the help of these reforms, he hopes "my equivalent in 10 years' time won't be talking about passport-type problems but things that have gone well".

And if things aren't quite running to plan, Watmore can al- ways flee the country - provided his biometric passport works.

BIOGRAPHY: Ian Watmore

BORN 5 July 1958

EDUCATION Trinity School, Croydon; degree in mathematics and management studies from Trinity College, Cambridge


1980: joins Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) as a graduate trainee

2000: after rising through the ranks, becomes UK managing director of Accenture

2004: appointed head of e-government unit in the Cabinet Office