The challenges for a new government IT strategy

A draft version of a new UK government IT strategy has been leaked onto the web, revealing ambitious targets to deliver nearly £9bn of annual savings within the next 10 years.

Reactions to the plan in some quarters are likely to vary along the cynicism scale between “about time” and “here we go again”.

There’s no doubt that the new strategy is hitting the zeitgeist of current technology trends – cloud computing, app stores, shared services, open source and green IT are central tenets, and are no less welcome for their fashionable status.

Government CIO John Suffolk and his peers on the CIO Council have put together an impressive and comprehensive 42-page document that will, hopefully, have a significant strategic effect on public sector IT.

And yet, and yet…

Not the least of the immediate challenges is the potential for a change of political hue in government next year casting an inevitable shadow. David Cameron has grand ideas for a Googlisation of government technology and Suffolk would need to convince a new master that building an enormous internal cloud computing infrastructure is the right way to go. Cameron prefers smaller government, hence smaller projects, and smaller IT.

Regardless of the politics, there will be observers who ask, “What happened to Transformational Government?” The original 2005 strategy is described as a success and “widely copied around the world” by its successor document. But a well-known IT lobby group recently told me that transformational government (TG) is now too heavily perceived as Labour language, and such influencers are trying to use different phraseology – it seems Civil Service IT leaders are going the same way.

The TG plan certainly changed government IT thinking, but whether it has really delivered on its practical aims is open to more debate. There are certainly more web-enabled public services now, many of which are widely used, but somehow it doesn’t quite feel that government IT has been truly transformed. Many of the old problems of over-promising and under-delivering are still prevalent.

In these days of such rapid change, the value of a strategy that is justified by cost saving targets in 2020 has to be questioned. If the strategy was written two years ago, it would not have mentioned cloud computing nor app stores, so how can we say with authority today that such concepts will not have been overtaken by 2012, let along 2020?

As a marker in the sand – a snapshot of current government IT thinking – a new strategy serves a valuable purpose. But bitter experience raises the inevitable fear that within five years many of the details will seem outdated, and many of the large and ambitious infrastructure projects will remain under delivered. The US government has already delivered an early app store, yet the UK will only reach pilot stage in the first half of 2010.

The test for this, or any IT strategy, is its ability to stay relevant. In a public sector environment where budgetary commitments are long term, and where agility and rapid change are rare, the big challenge for government CIOs is to make sure their strategy moves with the times.