Government efficiency adviser Martin Read talks exclusively to Computer Weekly about why technology is crucial to achieving cost savings in the public sector
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Martin Read is an experienced IT figure, a former CEO of Logica and now non-executive director of Invensys and Aegis, and a member of the international advisory board of the Confederation of British Industry. But arguably his most high-profile role today is as an efficiency adviser to the government and member of the Cabinet Office Efficiency and Reform Group (ERG) board.
Having left Logica in 2007 in the wake of a shock profit warning, in 2008 Read was given the job by then chancellor Alistair Darling of reporting on how to cut the government back-office and IT budget. He was subsequently hired by the Conservative party in April 2009 to help identify £12bn in public sector savings before he joined the ERG.
Read has nothing but praise for Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude's efforts so far to save more than £1bn by renegotiating public sector IT contracts and closing or cutting back major projects. "He has done a fantastic job," Read said.
But he believes that by, among many other things, changing its procurement methods, using shared services and making greater use of the internet, the government could make bigger cost savings.
"Long-term savings involve doing things differently and taking a partnership approach with suppliers," he said. "There are huge savings to be made by standardising and simplifying processes."
Areas of focus at the moment are procurement, standardisation, public sector networks and datacentre rationalisation.
"The [last] government got into the bad habit of a big bang approach to ICT projects, with no opportunity to test things, so scalability and specifications [were often] wrong," he said.
The key is to go for smaller projects and implement agile techniques, which enable projects to become more flexible, responsive to change and innovative.
More centralised controls over procurement, standardisation and consistency are also needed, he believes. "You can't centralise everything, but bigger purchases could be negotiated more effectively to create more standardisation and reduce costs."
Cloud computing is where the longer term savings lie, says Read. So does he agree with former government CIO John Suffolk's analysis that cloud computing could save the public sector billions but is taking too long to implement?
"I'm sure John is right, but in my view it's not a quick solution. Things such as security issues need to be thought through."
Nevertheless, Read is a big believer in the disruptive potential of the cloud: "A move to open source has to help downstream, but the bigger potential further ahead will come from the cloud, which will open up the market for SMEs."
Shared services could also expect to yield savings of around 25-30%, he said, although little progress has been made in this area due to a reluctance to join up services and overcome internal politics. But this was set to change, he said: "It's an act of rationalisation which forces you to look at business processes."
Read believes inefficiency in government is overwhelmingly a cultural problem, much of which he hopes will be eliminated by cost constraints.
"The system is very risk-averse, it works against innovation. People take a lot of pain if something goes wrong and little praise if they go right.
"But the two things that are different now are that we are in an environment where there is no money, so it is easier to implement change. And we have a government that is trying harder to drive through operational efficiency."
Martin Read will be speaking at the Public Sector Efficiency Expo on 16 March 2011.