Big bang is dead: Christmas has been cancelled

Some still view the Transformational Government Agenda as the ICT industry’s invitation to write to Father Christmas for a new generation of big, new consultancy contracts and systems.

How wrong they are.

The rhetoric at the party conferences, the subsequent Comprehensive Spending Review and now the Queen’s speach indicate clearly that those selling to the public sector have to adjust to a world in which they and their departmental customers will be under increasing pressure to co-operate across organisational and commercial boundaries, competing over time on delivered cost and quality of service, rather than up-front on price.

Given the government’s very clear priority for social inclusion, the timing for the EURIM Transformational Government Dialogues could not be better. The first contribution, on Thursday, is due to be from Sir David Varney – and I am personally looking to a factual scene-setter that will clear away some of the mythology in this space.

An equally robust contribution is then expected from Citizens Advice. Their volunteers are in front line of supporting the casualties of recent well-publicised, disjointed, inefficient and user-hostile systems failures. But equally importantly, many are also involved with those, much less well-publicised, successes where service has already been transformed.

The challenge has many dimensions but can be summarised quite succinctly with two questions:

– Why is it that a survivor of domestic violence, who is living in fear and caring for equally frightened children, must contact 8-10 agencies (all with different processes and varying levels of security) to provide duplicate information which could potentially be used by an abusive partner to track her down?

– Why is it that, following bereavement, an already stressed family will have to contact approximately 10 different agencies to notify them of the death? On average, it takes three to six months to communicate and resolve all the paperwork required.

Systems thinkers, like civil servants and political advisors, tend to think in the abstract, in terms of the efficiency and the interests of their departmental client. But all main political parties are now competing to show that they are serious about changing public sector services so that they meet the needs of real people.

The decision to “go incremental” on the National Identity Register was taken nearly 18 months but some still expect big consultancy and procurement contracts – as opposed to fitting commitents (like electronic visas and ICAO compliant passports) into inter-operability frameworks and building on what already works.

Their faith in Father Christmas is touching but the time has come to move on.

Identity management and information assurance go to the heart of the political debate over service delivery that is now under way – as do secure information sharing and systems inter-operability.

We have to protect the most vulnerable in society from the brutalisation and exploitation that could follow a leak of personal data from an insecure public sector system as well as protect the taxpayer from fraud and improve efficiency.

And we must never forget that people processes are nearly always a bigger risk than the technology.

Other questions include:

How to ensure that “do more with less” doesn’t become “offer less choice to those who need it”

How the right balance can be struck between security/data protection and providing the most effective services

What is needed from the government in terms of leadership and accountability to improve social inclusion in the UK

How can improvements be made to the public sector in an efficient, timely, cost-effective manner.

And my favourite question:

How do we monitor performance over time in such a way as to ensure the continuous incremental improvement that lies at the heart of all really successfull change programmes.

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We have to protect the most vulnerable in society from the brutalisation and exploitation that could follow a leak of personal data from an insecure public sector system as well as protect the taxpayer from fraud and improve efficiency.

Quite. And a good way of doing that is by not handing the managment of their identity over to the state wholesale, and building walls against large-scale data-sharing on vulnerable people. (Or anyone really - but the last ones whose lives you want to expose are those unable to fight back against information abuse.)

What's the government doing? Quite the reverse. ContactPoint, and the merger of health and social care records, and the collation of data relating to concessionary travel for ITSO-based entitlement schemes, mean the most vulnerable are to be the first to experience the joys of broad data-sharing. A cynic might suggest that is because they will be the least trouble to chivvy on to the systems and the least likely to complain effectively when things go wrong.

Many parts of the world have registers of residents. Sometimes these are used to issue "identity cards" to indicate entitlement to benefits. We must remember those who have suffered and even died because their data was not shared when it should have been as well as those who suffer or even die because their information has been leaked or abused. This is a debate that needs to have a better balance between the practical experience of end-users and customers/patients/victims and the theoretical of arguments of enthusiasts and of naysayers. There is a wealth of practical experience with regard to secure information sharing that is commonly ignored. We need constructive debate to find workable, and application specific win-win solutions - not simplistic confrontation.

You pose about a dozen questions in your 'Big bang' piece, EURIM is hosting dialogues, needed presumably because there are unanswered questions, you look to Sir David Varney to clear away some mythology and in your Crosby piece, four days earlier, you explain the delay in publication of Sir James's findings by the need to consider the broader issues of the National Identity Scheme first.

That is the situation in the UK, today, 7 November 2007, well over five years since the Home Office published its consultation document on entitlement cards in July 2002. IPS have achieved nothing, we face unanswered questions, we need dialogue and in the meantime the National Identity Scheme is all theoretical.

Now consider the EU. In 1999 they faced the same questions. They gave the job of answering them to eESC, the eEurope Smart Cards forum. And in 2003, eESC published OSCIE, the open smart card infrastructure for Europe, 2,000 pages of answers.

eESC was wound up and replaced by IDABC, who, with others, are methodically working to implement OSCIE. No-one has to accept IDABC's specification but, as long as we're all signed up for eGovernment – and we are -- one way and another, we must achieve that outcome. Take a look at the Finnish government's Population Register Centre. There it is. The public face of an NIR. Nothing theoretical about it -- as I write, there are 5,298,245 Finns.

There are any number of difficult matters to debate, arising from the comparison above. But one matter can be settled very easily. Over the course of the past five years, IPS have spent about £50 million on consultancy -- it is clearly not the case that Christmas has been cancelled.

Your suggestion is that the need for transformational government revolves around battered wives and probate. There must be some doubt whether that is true.

The Cabinet Office, on the other hand, are quite clear about their objectives. In the concluding paragraph of their paper on transformational government, they say:

It is likely therefore that the planning for this era [sic] will be based upon a vision that sees citizens and businesses increasingly serving themselves – at home, in work and public places and on the move; public servants truly dependent on technology to discharge their professional roles; policy makers regarding technology as crucial to designing policy and achieving policy outcomes; and backed by a government delivery network in which the boundaries between departments, between central and local government, and between public, private and voluntary sectors continue to be less important and less visible to the citizens and businesses.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Cabinet Office distrusts public servants and wants to replace their experience and professional judgement with computer systems.