Letter: Computer consultants face unfair criticism

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your article, 'The great computer catastrophe', (7 June) likens computer consultants to arms dealers because they thrive in secrecy and ignorance. The analogy could not be further from the truth. But it does illustrate a damaging and widespread ignorance of the enormous complexities involved in changing from old, often manual, operations to powerful computer systems.

In the case of the DSS, described by you as a catastrophe, a new system, which took seven years to implement, now allows the 20 million or so recipients of benefits to be assessed and paid automatically. In the early 1980s this was an unending manual task, bringing the social security system to the point of collapse. There was not a single computer in a local social security office. The new system, in 1,300 offices, is without peer in the commercial world. It also provides a robust basis for further improvements in the 1990s and beyond. The 'catastrophe' is, in fact, a shining example of success and one of which we should all be proud.

All systems, unfortunately, do not achieve as much and lessons must be learnt. Outdated procurement mechanisms, particularly in the public sector, must bear the blame for many such shortcomings. Undue emphasis on price, at the cost of quality and experience, will lead to undesirable outcomes. Reluctance to take the advice of experts under the mistaken belief that it is offered in self-interest also compounds the problem.

To stand still is not an option. The world has become a faster, more competitive place. There is broad agreement on the need for change, renewal and growth. Technology is often the key. The change it heralds involves some pain. Those who come in as change agents are an easy target for those who want to misconceive their role. But the measure of their success is in long-term benefits, which are often obscure to those in the midst of change.

It is clearly our task to develop a more widespread understanding of the change process and its dividends among those who seek to know. We undertake it with pleasure.

Yours sincerely,

KEITH BURGESS

Managing Partner

Andersen Consulting

London, WC2

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