The Home Office came under intense political scrutiny earlier this year. The government department confirmed that lack of communication between IT systems had contributed to the release of over 1,000 foreign criminals who escaped being considered for deportation at the end of their sentences.

It soon became apparent that many of those who had committed the most serious offences could not be traced, as their full details had not been entered on the Police National Computer core database. Regional police forces had to be asked to back up what should have been a national system, noted critics, and the problem was exacerbated by the fact the Home Office could only supply last names or multiple variants of names.

The mess – which compounded a ‘Black Wednesday’ in political problems for the Labour administration – reflected the difficulties the Home Office is currently facing. It has diverse areas of responsibility, and is shepherding a number of IT-led transformation projects. It needs to support over 26,000 users in the central Home Office headquarters (HQ) and Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND). The annual cost of such support is £200 million, primarily through two outsourced contracts. Priority for 2006, says the department, is the development of a shared service model for IT support, which will restructure the separate organisations providing support to HQ and IND.

Such an overhaul is sorely needed: indeed, it is widely accepted that the HQ and IND systems communicate poorly and that led to the deportation crisis of this spring. At the end of 2005 the Home Office recruited Vincent Geake as its CIO. He will be responsible for creating the Home Office’s first ever overall information and IT strategy during 2006. The timing – or urgency – seemingly could not be better. But Chancellor Gordon Brown’s March budget contained a sting in its tail for a number of the biggest government departments, with the price of extra investment in schools being, among other things, a zero real increase in spending for the Home Office over the three years from 2007-08. Can the need for efficiency and a curb on spending be made to balance? It could be a major domestic political imperative to prove that true.