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.