Sally Howes, IT director at the National Audit Office, has extensive experience in the IT sector and was brought in to boost the government watchdog’s technical skills. Under her guidance the NAO is expanding its role beyond project post-mortems to perform more IT health-checks.
“The NAO has good financial audit and value for money skills but needs to balance those with operational and real experience of delivering things,” says Howes, who heads its newly expanded team of seven full-time experts on IT.
“It is a good time to do that because the government ICT strategy has a clear intent about how it wants to reset its fortunes with IT, so I think it’s good that the NAO is trying to match some of those capabilities and skills itself,” she says.
Howes has been at the NAO for two years and previously worked in the Ministry of Defence in its commercial function. Previously she was director general of the Society of British Aerospace Companies, worked at Logica on complex real-time systems and worked in the SME tech space for 12 years, having started her own company with two colleagues.
So what does she feel such a far-reaching background brings to her job at the NAO?
“Genuine insight into the choices people make about technology and the difficulties of working in large programmes,” she says.
“It also provides insight into service delivery – for when government enters into large programmes to build new services or transform and change existing services. And I do see quite a focus on that programme mentally, but at the end of the day this is about delivering public services over quite a long period of time, however you choose to set that up or do it.”
What now for the NAO?
Clearly there is no shortage of NAO reports slamming government IT failures. While these have played a valuable role in holding government spending to account, the organisation hopes to do more than picking through the wreckage of IT disasters long after the money has gone.
But Howes says the watchdog wants to get more involved in giving feedback on IT projects as they are happening. A recent example of this was the NAO's report on government ICT strategy six months into its publication, she says.
“We are keen to look a little earlier. In addition to the very critical value-for-money reports, the office also has a budget to do performance improvement pieces of work,” she says.
"Certainly this year we have been invited in by particular departments and agencies to look at things they are concerned about earlier on.”
Given the myriad government IT disasters of the past, what does she see as its biggest challenge in government realising its IT strategy?
“It’s a boring answer, but I really do think it’s the people. It’s about getting all the talent you need lined up,” she says.
"If a department is moving from outsourcing to multi-sourcing, it does push back into that department the need for in-house areas of expertise that have been supplied by third parties.
"And some of this expertise you can’t pick up overnight, so I think finding the right way to fill that gap is important.”
While Howes says it is not the NAO’s job to be prescriptive about how IT skills are improved – particularly given the varying cost constraints facing departments in attracting external talent – admitting there is a problem with capability is an important first step.
“When it comes to capability, I think there are three things that are particularly important to enable senior management people in departments to have a mature view about the IT skills they need to deliver value in their business,” she says.
“It is easy to make mistakes about misjudging the skills you need.”
The first area is about making sure the IT people within the organisation are covering the core bases the particular organisation is responsible for, she says.
The second is ensuring that IT is properly embedded into the organisation, rather than existing in silos.
Third, departments could benefit from a move toward commodity IT purchases to free-up people to manage more complex areas of IT and concentrate on the real delivery of public services, she says.
“The next important thing is around governance, because sometimes one observes multi layers of governance, which are not helping to improve the speed, effectiveness or economy of what departments are doing,” she says.
“I think there is some serious work to be done about the governance of IT, particularly in relation to the government’s commitment to use agile.”
This is a pertinent issue as the government has committed to half of departments using agile methodologies by April 2013 – a target which the Institute of Government recently slammed as overambitious.
Howes is keen to point out that the specifics of re-skilling will be down to departments’ individual roadmaps. But she does believe that, while the growth of the Government Digital Service is a positive agency for change in government, the scale of the digitisation agenda shouldn’t be underestimated.
“The observation I would make is, recently the government has made an even more renewed commitment to digital by default. And of course there is the commitment to have information that is transparent and all those things require technology – as well as building digital services [those services need to be] safe,” she says.
"So thinking through the capability strategy, which is clearly what the government CIO Andy Nelson is doing, is an important piece.”