The public sector culture issue

Despite senior government and public sector officials often banging on about the importance of transparency and openness, in reality, it’s almost a cultural taboo for civil servants or anyone else involved to speak publicly about issues and failures.

The gravely dangerous disease that frequently sweeps across public sector IT projects, departments and organisations has claimed yet another victim. Yes, I’m talking about the culture issue.

This time, it’s the NHS Wales Informatics Service (NWIS) that has fallen victim to the well-known symptom of “everything is awesome”.

The Welsh Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) report into NWIS’ running of the country’s NHS IT is not a happy read. It is dire, downbeat and shocking, but unfortunately not surprising.

As well as problems such underfunding, poorly executed IT projects, lack of infrastructure, and potentially putting patients at risk, it speaks of a culture where staff fail to speak out, and are simply toeing the line, and being “overly positive”.

It could easily be brushed aside as a simple issue, but the culture here is likely to be one of the reason for all of the other failings. As seen again and again in government IT projects, a failure to recognise the problem often leads to much bigger problems.

While many civil servants and public sector employees work relentlessly to change this, the culture change needs to come from the top.

Antithesis of openness

In Wales, this has become incredibly apparent. The Welsh PAC found that instead of openness and transparency, something sorely needed for successful digital transformation, “the culture at NWIS was the antithesis of this”.

It also brings into question what else could be bubbling under the surface. As the report says: “If the problems with NHS informatics are to be addressed, then an open and honest reflection on the current state of play and the barriers to progress is essential.”

“Indeed, it is quite possible that this culture has prevented the committee from hearing a comprehensive range of issues and problems – in short, we remain unsure of the scale of the issues.”

It’s a sad state of affairs, but not an unusual one. In fact, it’s one of the common denominators of most government IT projects gone wrong. A couple of years ago, the National Audit Office (NAO) and the Public Accounts Committee both published damning reports showing projects failing due to poor leadership and lack of transparency.

Despite overwhelming evidence that it pays to be open about your problems from the beginning, it seems very difficult for government to speak up. Earlier this year, I wrote about critical border IT systems which won’t be ready in time for Brexit, where the government’s reaction was simply to shrug their shoulders and said there were no problems. The same response has been the case when it comes to the new Customs Declaration Service.

Now, a few months before the UK leaves the EU, it’s looking like 11 out of 12 systems probably won’t be ready.  

What’s happened in Wales, and what’s happening with border IT systems are only two of many, many potential examples of why transparency is important.

Stuffing your fingers in your ears and pretending not to listen, or closing your eyes and pretending not to see, won’t solve anything. It’s time for a serious culture change across the public sector.

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