The government’s lack of in-house IT expertise has been identified as one of the key reasons for IT project failure in government. Computer Weekly speaks to Jan Ford, head of ICT strategy at Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and lead on the government’s fast stream graduate IT programme, about the importance of nurturing the next generation of IT leaders in government.
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Jan Ford has had a career in IT spanning more than three decades, during this time she has held positions at PWC and Fujitsu as well as her current role of head of ICT Strategy, planning and operations at the Ministry of Justice. Among her many responsibilities Ford is currently overseeing the government’s Technology in Business (TiB) fast stream programme.
“IT in government has a bad reputation for spending too much and delivering too little,” says Ford. “It’s clear at the senior level we do have some issues around capability. We don’t have many home grown CIOs. The depth and breadth of knowledge and understanding do matter as there’s a cost attached to having to recruit and wastage involved through churn.”
The TiB programme will play a key role in boosting IT capability and improving leadership continuity, she says.
At the moment the MoJ has 13 graduates in its programme, with a total of 60 across government. “One of the targets we have been set is to increase that intake,” she says. There are more than 30 graduates planned for next year’s intake, with the target set in the ICT Strategy Implementation Plan to average 20 per year by September 2014.
“The ones working at the end of the programme are working on some very big jobs. Two of them are working on the key parts of delivering the government IT strategy. They are really getting front line business experience,” says Ford. “Not one day goes by when someone doesn’t say, ‘we could really do with a TiB-er for that’.”
The new programme is designed to take a more collaborative approach between departments. “At the moment there’s a lot of linkage to home departments, we are trying to encourage exchange between departments so they get a broader range of experience.”
The new scheme will also be more focused on building skills in IT leadership. But graduation doesn’t necessarily guarantee a job in government, she says. “They will still have to compete. But there is a hope that these graduates will go on to become the next CTOs and CIO in government.”
There are around 100 applicants for every place, which is a massive demand for a small number of places, says Ford..
“We don’t specify that they have to have done an IT degree but we do ask that they at least have a 2:1. This is about finding talented people and leaders for the future. The majority don’t have an IT degree. We are looking for people who are business savvy. And people who are prepared to challenge conventional wisdom. It’s important to remember that government is not building technology, it is using it!”
External staff figures are set to reduce by 15%, which also puts more pressure on the need to build in-house expertise.
But the training is not expected to create government job-for-life positions. “If we do produce capable people of a high standard then it’s almost inevitable that some will work in the private sector,” she says.
Matching skills to roles
“There’s an interesting dynamic in terms of what the government should retain as opposed to outsourcing. Things like management, assurance and governance should always be retained in government but we ought to outsource the roles where we don’t get added value or a unique capability. “
However, when it comes to digital skills where agility and speed are critical, Ford believes capabilities are starting to come more in-house. “I think the cloud and app store will make a massive difference there. There’s a key difference between shifting the monolithic way of procuring assets to a measured consumption of services. It’s a bit like moving from a Michelangelo sculpture to building things using Lego blocks.”
Getting the younger generation interested in IT has also been part of Ford’s long-term plans. “We’ve been trying to go out and inspire the next intake for 5-10 years’ time. We’ve done pilots with sixth form groups talking about coming in to do IT and working in government.
Government is also running two-month long work placements for university students. “For the first time we are taking interns, these are proper positions and we are paying them a proper wage and attracting them from diverse groups.”
The current generation are far more IT literate than previous ones, says Ford. As such she believes this is a great time to be re-skilling the IT workforce.
“I think this is one of the most interesting periods since I first began in IT in the 70s. Then there was always the issue that IT people should have more business skills and vice versus. But now there is a big change in the pace at which that is finally happening,” she says.
“I do hope our graduates will go on to become government CIOs. I love working with people who you know in a few years you’ll be working for. They don’t know limits and always ask why not questions. Working with bright talented people is very motivating.”