Cameron & Co finding that government IT needs more than good intentions

A new government is learning that being in power is a different game from being in opposition when it comes to IT policy.

It’s not the coalition’s fault – it’s what happens when you get a new bunch of politicians making decisions they have never had to make before – but already it’s becoming apparent that the thorny problem of public sector IT is not going to be solved by good intentions.

This week we learned that most of the initial milestones in the Cabinet Office review of IT procurement and projects have already been missed. Of course, it is early days and there is time to catch up, but haven’t we heard that before too.

Meanwhile, we wait for the new government IT strategy promised in March – less than a year after the previous 10-year IT strategy produced by former government CIO John Suffolk for the Labour administration. Suffolk’s plan was built around the G-Cloud, the ambitious programme to consolidate more than 130 public sector datacentres down to less than 20, to share services and create an “app store” for approved software.

But already there are question marks over Whitehall’s commitment to that sensible, if hugely ambitious, aim. The G-Cloud documentation released to Computer Weekly this week shows the concerns over the scope, scale and cost of the project. In a climate of spending cuts, a strategy that is bound to be front-loaded with cost and risk will inevitably be difficult to justify, even with the likely benefits in the long term.

David Cameron promised that his government would break the strangehold that large IT suppliers have over the public sector, and end the culture of giant billion-pound projects. Yet the G-Cloud reports show how difficult it is going to be to enforce the sort of open standards that would be needed to truly open up the market to new, smaller, more innovative providers.

There are many vested interests determined to maintain as much of the status quo as possible – in Whitehall and in the industry. Bold decisions are called for, and we await the new government IT strategy in hope more than expectation.