The initial reaction from some observers to the new government IT strategy was, “So what’s new?”
Certainly there is little in terms of the practicalities that we hadn’t heard already – open source, cloud computing, smaller projects, more diversity in the supplier base – but these are just the latest in a long list of technologies and trends that have evolved through various past iterations of public sector IT policy.
Ultimately the strategy will not be judged on the products it implements, but on the change it enables.
Let’s face it, does it really matter if civil servants use OpenOffice instead of Microsoft, for example? As long as they are delivering public services in the most cost-effective manner, then surely not – no matter what the open source activists will say.
The most important change the strategy needs to deliver is to change the conversation around government IT – or ideally to stop people talking about it altogether. Nobody talks about successful IT systems – they just use them. The only time the technology becomes an issue is when it doesn’t work. There is no doubt that IT can, should and must transform the delivery of public services, but it will be judged a success when it becomes invisible.
Deputy government CIO Bill McCluggage is right to say that a commitment to accountability is one of the most important facets of the new plan. Someone has to know that they shoulder the blame for failure – and that they will be acknowledged for success. Too often in the past the originators of problem projects have long since moved on by the time they make the headlines for their collapse, then the finger pointing begins and nothing happens.
When IT-enabled public services meet the requirements of citizens, support the cost-cutting needs of these austere times, are flexible and adaptable to change, and when they just work, nobody will care what logo is on the box or what name is on the invoice.
The government IT strategy is critically important, but to be a success it must make itself irrelevant.