Quietly, cautiously, carefully, government IT may just be getting it right

Public sector IT remains – rightly – under great scrutiny in the UK. Right now, it faces a set of challenges unique to the political cycle, but they are challenges that warrant patience from the many critics of Whitehall IT policy.

Last year, a new government promised new ways of working, widespread IT reforms, an end to the headline-grabbing IT failures. Now, a little over a year has passed with any honeymoon period long-since elapsed, and critics are expecting to see tangible evidence that things are really different, not simply empty political promises.

It’s easy to point fingers at government IT policy today and highlight the lack of progress on implementing open source; to point out how often contracts still go to the big oligopoly of systems integrators instead of SME suppliers; or to criticise major legacy problems such as the NHS IT contracts.

It is right, of course, to hold government to account on these and any other intentions – and Computer Weekly has been at the forefront of that.

But there is a real sense that, quietly, thoughtfully, behind the scenes, genuine change might just be taking place.

Transforming years of public sector IT culture and moving away from complex legacy systems is not so much like turning round the proverbial oil tanker, it’s like taking all the oil and trying to push it back into the well too. It takes time.

Bill McCluggage, the deputy government CIO, talked to Computer Weekly readers at a recent CW500 Club meeting, and described the welcome improvements in attitude and environment within the Cabinet Office and among the Whitehall IT community over the past year.

He talked about the greater collaboration, more openness, more honesty about mutual difficulties and failings. He highlighted the desire to look beyond traditional IT providers and take advice from other voices – but also the acceptance that Whitehall has outsourced too many of its IT skills. Outsourcing service provision is one thing, but government needs to re-build its in-house IT capabilities to better hold those service providers to account.

When you talk to Bill and his IT leadership peers in government, they have the air of knowing the things they need to change, and give the impression they know how to do it. They also bear the weariness of knowing that everyone expects them to have done so yesterday.

I get the distinct feeling they are absolutely genuine in their desire to use more open source, to move away from big contracts and projects, to work with more innovative SMEs, to be more agile, and tackle the failings of the past.

But more than that, I detect the confidence that they believe they are on the right path, and that they are slowly proving it.

For example, former Guardian digital supremo Mike Bracken recently took on the role of government digital director, responsible for delivering the “digital by default” agenda for public services. He arrived to quite a fanfare having made The Guardian a leader in digital media. In his first interview since taking on the role, he told Computer Weekly that he has to do the boring things first – get the organisation structure right, get the right people in place, agree a budget – but that he knows what is possible once all that is in place.

Another example – BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones wrote a thoughtful article recently based on a Freedom of Information request to Whitehall departments asking for a breakdown of their software spending between proprietary and open source. Not surprisingly, it showed lots spent on proprietary, not much on open source. Critics jumped on this as proof that government is failing to deliver its commitment to open source.

Rory was kind enough to share the data he received with Computer Weekly in advance to get our opinion – and there was little revelatory in there. All it showed is that over the last 12 months government spent its software budgets in the same way they always used to – it’s far too soon to see major shifts to open source. The figures highlighted the difficulty of introducing a policy to encourage open source – but gave no indication that it wouldn’t be achieved.

And a final example: we recently talked to a number of SME IT suppliers to find out their real-life experiences of trying to win government contracts, and it wasn’t pretty. Many had stories that help build a picture that government will always favour big, apparently safe, suppliers.

One of the biggest critics of the “big company” procurement policy is Mark Taylor, CEO of a small open-source specialist, Sirius, who has added plenty of personal experience to the debate. So what has the government done as a result? It asked Taylor to chair a working group on how to bring new suppliers to Whitehall. That’s not yet a sign that things have changed, but it shows an openness to listen to critics in a positive way that has often been absent in the past.

We have of course been here before. It’s by no means the first time we’ve been told government IT is changing, only to be disappointed. And such bitter experience means that every cynic is entirely justified in questioning any of the latest initiatives.

But slowly, cautiously, carefully, there are signs that this time might, actually, be different.

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