Is it right to press on with IT-enabled public service delivery when the last decade's high-profile "failures" caused many to question whether we can or should pursue this path? This question was centre stage at the recent CIO Council meeting, which involved more than 30 chief information officers from across government.
What is clear to every member of this group is that our public services are hugely complex to deliver. We concluded that we simply cannot transform complex, joined up, national services without sustained investment in IT. There are few, if any, comparable private sector systems as large or as complex as those we face.
Even more crucial is that we recognise that investment alone is not the answer. Transformation only occurs when IT is deployed strategically to support joined up processes which help people give and receive good and trusted services; and when the transformation is managed by experienced professionals in partnership with best of breed suppliers.
Although it seldom makes front page headlines, we are constantly pushing the boundaries of what can be done and we get it right most of the time.
The Department for Transport is now allowing motorists to renew tax discs online (it took less than two minutes for me to renew mine in February).
The City of Leeds is equipping care workers with digital pens that electronically record patient notes, which are downloaded to the office computer later. This allows care workers to spend more time with the elderly.
Directgov is joining up online services around groups of citizens with similar needs.
The Department for Work and Pensions has just completed its payment modernisation programme and as a result 95% of customers now have benefits paid directly into an account. The programme has delivered five-year savings of more than £1bn in the process. And behind departmental doors, shared services will be critical to implementing reforms that arose from the Gershon review of public sector efficiency. Government IT can work.
We will use the IT strategy for government set for publication in the autumn to address how we can increase the likelihood of such successes in the future, recognising that IT problems are often the symptom of a bigger business or system challenge.
In some cases new IT is introduced because of a new piece of legislation or business process. This itself causes surges in demand for staff using new systems and new processes. Cases then become backlogged, the systems cannot cope and front-line staff and customers bear the brunt while the IT is blamed.
We therefore need a step change in the professionalism of our IT. We must build a stronger community of IT professionals within government, and increase our business change capability: a programme I am personally committed to leading.
In addition, contracting with third-party suppliers needs a partnership style rather than an adversarial approach. The Office of Government Commerce has made huge strides in this regard. We are now focused with the commercial leaders of government and suppliers' representatives on creating better contracts and relationships in future.
Finally, as we depend more on IT for public services we need to protect information assets from attack and ensure privacy for the individual. Information assurance and IT security are critical to our national infrastructure and must be baked into all our plans.
To return to the question: should we continue to pursue IT-enabled change to improve public service delivery? The CIO Council exists to deliver that agenda, and it is committed to doing it. The answer is a resolute "yes".
Ian Watmore is government CIO and head of e-government
Following feedback from government IT staff at this month's CIO Council, Ian Watmore's column next month will lay out his plans to boost professionalism in public sector IT
CV: Ian Watmore
Ian Watmore joined IT services company Accenture in 1980, became a partner in 1990 and was elected UK managing director in 2000.
He has worked in both the public and private sectors, mainly in the UK and Ireland but with spells in South Africa, New Zealand, the US and mainland Europe.
He is a past president of the Management Consultants Association, and chaired the IT Industry Board of E-Skills UK.
This was first published in May 2005