May 2010 Archives
Last year the spend on big IT systems in the UK dropped by over 5%, more in the private sector, over 8 - 9 % in financial services, manufacturing, mining and construction. More ICT staff (30%) had to accept pay cuts than the national average (27%). Local Authorities had to cut 10% of IT staff and 11% more are expected to follow this year. Now the cuts have reached Whitehall and the Quangos. No wonder BCS has a cadre of luddites who hark back to the halcyon days of 30 years ago when they were coming up to their Royal Charter. About then I did a favour for one of my wife's cousins. I agreed to speak to her local Women's Institute on new technology and the jobs of the future. Luckily I asked for overhead projector and did some slides. I found myself in the Warminster Leisure Centre, speaking to well over 400, including teachers, careers advisors, local business and councillors. Today it would be a Church Hall, if I, or anyone else, were to be invited at all.
Now is not the time to analyse why it all went wrong.
The first question is "What do those in the ICT industry, users as well as suppliers, professionals as well as employers, have to do to rescue their image it position alongside that of used car salesmen, journalists and politicians?"
The cancellation of national ID cards may, paradoxically, lead to a burgeoning of spend on public sector ID systems as the removal of uncertainty allows local councils to move forward with low cost residents' cards, as are used to improve service around the world at the same time as cutting cost, waste and fraud. Yesterday, after a meeting of the Information Society Alliance group meeting on identity governance practices in other countries, I spent an hour with one of the organisations that provides such services - with incremental savings and revenues often enabling roll out on positive cash flow. The barrier to such an approach in the UK was not the capital cost of systems development or equipment.
BECTA was the last reincarnation of the Micro-electronics Support Unit, created to support the DTI Micros in Schools programme which I had written into the policy proposals of both Conservative and Labour parties in 1979. The original proposal was for ten times the hardware funding to be allocated for shared software and support. It never happened. MESU had one tenth of the hardware funding, not ten times. It never reached critical mass but did valuable work until it was upstaged by the private sector suppliers to the Regional Broadband Consortia. The latter also provide Internet Services to schools, initially at 1 - 2 mbps, now being wound up to 100 mbps. They are potentially the key to providing 1 mbps to the heart of every UK community, however isolated, akin to the Obama broadband vision for small town America.
What do you call an industry which does not plan for the inevitable? Like Y2K the cuts in ICT spend announced yesterday were inevitable. What was not inevitable was the rush of buyers and suppliers into a final round of big-bang deals that were bad value for taxpayers and shareholders alike and will have to be unscrambled. Rather than bemoan the reasons why ICT turned from White Knight into Whipping Boy I would would prefer to ask "How many suppliers have the wit and will to help turn a potentially terminal crisis for their UK public sector operations into an uprecedented opportunity for mutually beneficial change?"
One of the least painful ways to make major cuts is to begin by identifying those operations that are no longer fit for purpose, if they ever were. In the public sector that might include all those on-line services and call centres that cannot be used by their target audiences, those who are socially excluded because they cannot see, let alone use, a conventional screeen and keyboard or hear, let alone navigate their way through, a semi-automated call centre.
In the early 1980s I had to turn round the NCC Microsystems Centre when the DTI funding vanished in a typical government double-counting operation. My staff - I merely encouraged them - managed to stop the bleeding and to grow the operation, on positive cash flow, at 80% p.a. compound. About the same time I became an advisor to the High Tech Unit of Barclays Bank. I remember persuading the bank to give a stay of execution to one software house which was having to do likewise, after a major customer had gone down leaving the bills unpaid and another, whose strategic partner had pulled out of the UK.
I spent much of yesterday in meetings planning how to help local authorities and their suppliers cope with similar pressures over the year ahead. The first step will be to give confidence to local authorities and agencies that they can legitimately do short order procurements to make innovative use of IT to remove bottlenecks, improve service and free up funds for investment in shared services to make further savings - and so on.
Cheryl GIllan has announced that the Welsh Office is to scrap first class rail travel for all staff, however senior. If the other departments of state follow suit the savings in cost and time should not be under-estimated - especially as resistance to teleconferencing falls away. One of the largest and leakiest employers of officials currently entitled to first class travel could gain as much as 10% extra time from its middle management and cut their travel and subsistance costs by 50% if its monday morning reviews in London were to be on-line.
Further to my blog yesterday, those wishing to ponder the future of NHS IT could do a lot worse than look at the previous Conservative policy statement in response to the independent reivew of NHS IT commissioned by Stephen O'Brien. That review addressed questions raised in an earlier, rather less detailed and thoughtful (only nine pages as opposed to over 180 for the independent review) study by Centre Right Think Tank Aediles. The title of that paper Computerising the Chinese Army summarised the problem. The "solution", a mix of devolution, choice and inter-operability, was another of those areas where Conservatives and the LibDems were in strong agreement even before current love-in. Implementation is another matter - given that so many trusts are constrained by impossible service contracts and bankrupt in all but name.
MIchael Cross has written a typically well informed and thoughful piece for Kable on the convergence of the Conservative and LibDem plans for NHS IT but I suspect his core conclusion may be wrong. The roll-out of NPfIT has been stalled for several years, leaving the previous local systems preserved in aspic, with the NHSIA strategy of linking and building incrementally on the best of breed, replaced by a grandiose centrally mandated, silo structured, target driven, big-bang approach.
The comments of the Commonwealth election observers on our electoral system should be juxtaposed with the Lib-Con agreement to scrap ID cards. The fiascos at undermanned polling stations led to a call from the Election Commissioner for progress on electronic voting, as though that would do more than compound the opportunities for ghost, multiple and coercive voting that have been opened up by recent changes to UK routines for registration and postal voting.
One of the sadder features of the General Election was the failure of so many candidates with a solid understanding of the world of information systems to be elected or re-elected. Several came so close that I hope they will be successfull, when the National Government falls apart: whether over failure to agree savings that satisfy the IMF, the timing of the referendum on electoral reform or the immunity of MPs from having their broadband cut-off after their children have downloaded ...
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