In his first interview as government CIO, John Suffolk identifies a dearth of skills as a key challenge facing Whitehall's IT-enabled change programmes.
When John Suffolk was asked whether government could handle the present level of change, he was silent. Eventually he replied, "That’s a tough question to answer."
As the new government chief information officer – giving his first interview with the media since starting the job in June – Suffolk had to choose his words carefully.
This is because the barons of Whitehall, who include directors of communications, frown on civil servants who tell it like it is.
When Steve Lamey, CIO of HM Revenue and Customs, revealed last year that his department was sending millions of letters to the wrong addresses in part because it had poor data on taxpayers, his minister and public relations specialists reacted swiftly.
As a result, directors of HM Revenue and Customs are now asked to clear their public speeches if they plan to say anything about life in their departments. Lamey has said nothing similar since.
Suffolk, like Lamey and Joe Harley, CIO of the Department for Work and Pensions, joined the civil service from the private sector; and it shows. He is straightforward even when talking to journalists, indicating perhaps that he has not been in Whitehall long.
On the important question of whether government can cope with the present level of changes, Suffolk said, "Being a new boy I do not have full visibility in terms of where every department is. I think it is fair to say that the level of change we are going through is at the top end of anyone’s capability – in the private and public sectors."
He added, "Our biggest concern is not about cash, it is about the amount of skills we have in government, and in private sector organisations."
Many of the 50,000 IT specialists in the public sector are grappling with high-risk IT-based reform costing billions of pounds in the NHS, education, pensions, criminal justice, police intelligence, defence infrastructure and immigration.
There are also complex programmes to support the introduction of identity cards and biometric passports – projects that involve large-scale changes in working practices.
"This is not just about outsourcing everything to a third party," said Suffolk. "You still need all the same change management people in house, the same accountability in-house. We do not have enough; we do not have enough people in terms of competence, and that is why government is running its professional skills agenda [to increase the number of people with the right skills]."
Some people will be surprised that the government is attempting radical IT-based change when there is a shortage of the right skills internally and externally. Yet there is every sign that ministers and mandarins are still keen on big high-risk programmes, apparently the bigger the better.
Last week the Home Office published a review of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate which indicated that, like the Department of Health, it wants to be seen as a risk-taking world-leading pioneer.
The review of the immigration service said, "We will become a leading implementer of technology within government for new information and knowledge management systems, particularly for identity and tracking technologies."
In recognition of the risks, there is a Cabinet subcommittee, called Paxe, which is chaired by the minister Stephen Timms, a former employee of the IT company Logica. The subcommittee discusses on a regular basis plans that involve major changes in departments, said Suffolk.
But it has not stopped the NHS’s IT programme running into trouble, delays in the processing of online passport applications, payments to farmers being held up, or the administration of the Home Office becoming chaotic, its systems being so poor that auditors were unable to conduct an annual audit.
As a troubleshooter on such projects, Suffolk seems a good choice. His reputation as a pragmatist and a clear thinker is reinforced by his use of language that is noticeably free of the platitudes beloved of Whitehall. He avoids for example Whitehall’s catchphrases such as "e-government" or "transformational government".
Suffolk also recognises the importance with risky programmes of the need to debate how well you are discussing the problems, and whether you are ticking boxes on a risk register instead of properly confronting a programme’s real difficulties.
But the diagnosis has been known for a long time: Whitehall needs to change its culture of not telling it like it is. The problem is the treatment. Can one man, even John Suffolk, change a culture that dates back centuries?
The challenges ahead for the new government CIO
- One of John Suffolk's challenges is helping to establish e-mail systems that work together despite different security levels. At present departments have separate e-mail systems at different levels of security, which do not talk to each other.
- Suffolk plans to cut the costs of the Cabinet Office's E-Government Unit. It employs about 100 people, down from a peak of some 200, and Suffolk wants to reduce the number to about 75.
- Programmes that fail to meet their objectives often have a high turnover of leaders, according to Suffolk. He also said it was important that top people in departments and agencies have more time to discuss the implications of IT-based change programmes. Topics should include the way risks are being mitigated and how decisions are made on changes to contracts.
- Public sector CIOs are considering whether to use a citizens' database built by the Department for Work and Pensions - the Customer Information System - as their main name and address database. This would mean that only one system need be kept up to date with changes in names and addresses. HM Revenue and Customs is considering standardising on the DWP database, so that tax systems would access it to retrieve names and addresses.
- Suffolk wants savings from IT programmes to be demonstrably genuine. If the savings are included in financial submissions to the Treasury, budgets to the department or agency may be reduced by the savings achieved.
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