Why the government IT strategy needs to become irrelevant

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.

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You show breathtaking misunderstanding of IT for a senior IT editor with your desktop office software example.

Why does it matter if civil servants are using one product or another?

Sovereignty and freedom to work with your information as you wish, not as the vendor wishes. Independence from a single vendor, maintaining competitive pressure after purchase. Medium and long term savings from data formats that are not going to become obsolete on the wishes of one vendor, and will interoperate with other products. Not asking citizens/3rd sector to buy expensive software simply to read and work with public information. The list goes on.

Please explain why you dismiss "open source activists" - what do they say that is nonsense? If you're going to dismiss them, do them the courtesy of explaining your argument.
Thanks for the comment Charles - which in some ways illustrates the point I was trying to make.

I'm very well aware of the arguments you make in favour of open source office software - but I think they are technical arguments that have little effect on the end result, which is delivering cost-effective public services.

I don't hear many of the millions of Microsoft Office users in business, for example, complaining that they lack "sovereignty and freedom" to use information. If for, example, I save a document in OpenOffice default format, I often can't open it in the most widely used wordprocessor in the world. But if I save a document in .doc format, it is accessible by every application.

Making government documents / information available in open formats is a separate matter - clearly that is important to enable people to use whatever system they wish. But that's a different decision from what system is used within government.

And I don't dismiss open source activists, I just think that the big questions that the public sector needs to answer are not at that technical infrastructure level. Does the average recipient of public services really care whether a Whitehall civil servant is using Microsoft Office or OpenOffice? I think not. Whichever does the job the most cost effectively is the right one to use.

I'm not dismissing open source either - it is a very valid choice, and should be considered as one of the options wherever it is relevant. All I'm saying is that an "open source only" mantra is no more or less beneficial than a proprietary-only strategy. It's horses for courses, whichever is the right choice for a particular requirement, use it. But don't use it based on a technical bias, use it because it's the right decision for delivering cost-effective public services.

I disagree with Bryan. This isn't about technical choices - it is entirely business.

Vendor lockin is a business problem, not a technical problem.

Interaction with the citizen is a business problem, not a technical problem.

Reduced flexibility and choice is a business problem, not a technical problem.

Maintaining competitive pressure on your software and IT suppliers is a business problem, not a technical problem.

So these are all very relevant and very urgent business issue - not to be dismissed a technical bickering. To suggest otherwise would be doing the taxpayer a disservice.

Also to correct Bryan, MS Office supports the Open Document Format, as do other office software. No other software supports MS Office formats with any guarantee.