Government IT reform - now the real battle starts

Despite the understandable scepticism that was aired about the government’s IT reform plans when the coalition came to power, it is worth reflecting on some of the achievements that have been delivered this year.

Just those three initiatives alone promise to end several of the most frequently cited criticisms of past government IT – namely, too costly and inefficient; not enough SMEs; the restrictions from European procurement rules; no open source; no open standards; too much lock-in to big incumbents; and not enough use of modern software development techniques.

It would be wrong to underestimate how far the IT reformers in Whitehall have come to reach this point. But the real battles lie ahead.

It is all very well putting policies in place, but getting the big government departments to follow them is another matter. Insiders say there is a growing backlash from departmental IT teams to the dictates from the Cabinet Office, whose minister Francis Maude is very much the political driving force behind the much-needed IT reforms.

There is a triumvirate of influence across Whitehall. In one corner, Mike Bracken and his Government Digital Service, which is leading the “digital by default” strategy to deliver public services online. In another is deputy government CIO Liam Maxwell, who has been leading the changes in strategy and supplier relationships, and driving the effort to overhaul the way departments purchase and use technology. And finally, there are the departmental CIOs, who are, ultimately, the budget holders for where the £16bn of annual IT spending goes.

The tensions across that triangle are getting very stretched. And now, a major reorganisation at the Cabinet Office has provoked fears from reformers that the dissenting voices of those who want to slow change, or protect the status quo, are gaining influence.

Government CIO Andy Nelson is apparently being sidelined – which is not a great surprise. He is liked and respected across the Whitehall IT community, but even when he was appointed it was clear that the role was increasingly that of a figurehead to lead the IT profession, rather than deliver IT change. Nelson also has some big challenges in his department, the Ministry of Justice, to focus on.

If the shake-up proceeds in the way documents seen by Computer Weekly suggest, Liam Maxwell is now to report to Mike Bracken – previously a peer-to-peer relationship, so how will the dynamics and priorities of that relationship change?

It also seems that Maxwell’s responsibility for liaising with departments is being taken away, and given to Cabinet Office executive director Lesley Hume. Insiders say Hume is well liked, and is perhaps seen as more of a diplomat than Maxwell and therefore more acceptable to departmental CIOs. But those insiders also suggest she has yet to prove her ability to deliver the IT changes needed.

More significantly, Hume will report to chief procurement officer Bill Crothers – labelled “old school” by former G-Cloud director Chris Chant, who still takes a keen interest in the reforms he championed before he retired to a French country idyll.

Rumour has it that Crothers is seen as more favourable to dealing with larger suppliers.

Immediately, there seems a conundrum in having the driver of change – Liam Maxwell – reporting to a different person from Hume, who has responsibility for making that change happen in departments. What does it say that IT strategy delivery is to be a function of procurement, not of the CIO or of the leaders of reform?

Furthermore, it appears that the G-Cloud team may also find itself reporting to Crothers – a move that insiders fear could seriously undermine the project and its role in the wider reform agenda.

The shake-up has been instigated by the new Cabinet Office chief operating officer, Stephen Kelly, formerly the CEO of software firm Micro Focus. Kelly is believed to see little point in the role of a central CIO across government, but his views on the wider IT reforms have yet to be publicly aired.

Among Whitehall CIOs there are rumours of frustration with the mixed messages they are receiving. An apocryphal story doing the rounds is of one CIO of a major department being encouraged by one part of the Cabinet Office to avoid certain IT suppliers, by another part to avoid certain others, until he had such a long list of suppliers he was told not to use, that he exploded with a “Who the f*** am I meant to buy from then?”

The window of opportunity for the reformers is getting shorter. If fundamental, irreversible change is not in place by the next election in 2015, it could be stymied for years. If minister Maude gets reshuffled, the political willpower for reform could disappear – although some insiders say he wants to retain responsibility for the IT spending controls he put in place, even if he ends up in another ministerial post.

The internal civil service politics is brewing up, and it’s no longer as clear where the real power and influence in driving IT reform lies. Insiders fear the impending shake-up in the IT leadership organisation threatens to confuse and dilute ownership of the reforms.

Next year is going to be critical – can the policies put in place to enable change be turned into actual changes in IT strategy, delivery, purchasing and supplier relations? The words of one insider put into context the need for the reformers to win the battle:

“I just try to keep reminding myself why I’m trying to help do this: the poor old taxpayer working their socks off in some boring job in the belief their taxes are going into something important like education or health – not bloated and poorly designed IT.”

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