From Big Bang to Structured Evolution

The public service agreements for the 2007 comprehensive review require departments and agencies to work across boundaries in ways that will not happen unless departments and their suppliers really do move away from the failed world of “big bang” solutions, whether in-house or outsourced. Will we see the creation of a new generation of the hire purchase (alias PFI) contracts that have enriched a generation of consultants, lawyes and salesmen at the expense of taxpayers, service recipients and shareholders alike. Or have politicians (including Ministers, Permanent Secretaries and Policy Advisors) finally come to understand that it is not humanly possible to agree specifications for timely and efficient, centrally planned and controlled, user-centric systems? But who will tell them them that – when so many senior players made their reputations telling them the opposite.

In a comment piece in June headed “Why do so many government systems fail so often” I said that “Most UK central government systems are doomed before they start because no one will be responsible for ensuring that they succeed.” and quoted Paragraph 17 of the recent Public Accounts Committee report, “Delivering successful IT-enabled business change” which summarised the key difference between the public and private sector. “For commercial organisations, IT-enabled change can be crucial to the success or failure of the business and, reflecting this importance, incentives and performance management regimes are geared to motivate those responsible to succeed. Currently, Senior Responsible Owners are not rewarded for staying the course to delivery of their programme or project, or for taking ownership of risks. Lack of experience combined with a regular turnover of Senior Responsible Owners, creates discontinuity and adds unnecessary risk to the management of IT-enabled business change”.

I also said that “The current comprehensive spending review has to be built around the skills available and the staff development plans already under way, if it is to succeed. Hence the talk by ministers of incremental change, re-using that which already works and has been paid for, within existing contracts. But it will not be easy to overcome the pressures for “big” centralised systems for which the minister can be held to account on the Today programme. Your readers are voters as well as information systems managers and professionals. They should write to their own MP in support of the PAC recommendations and the attempts of the CIO Council to mandate good practice from the beginning, at the top – not afterwards when it is too late.”

We can now see the beginnings of change with departments moving from “big bang” procurements to “framework contracts”. But we can also see struggles for power over who “controls” the process for agreeing cross-departmental frameworks – particularly for secure information sharing and identity management and the protocols and standards that make this possible.

These struggles go to the heart not only of Government’s agenda for using technology to transform service delivery but of the private sector agendas for giving confidence to on-line customers that their details will not be “leaked” to the highest bidder.

The US President’s Identity Theft Task Force gives priority to the actions necessary to secure public sector information against used to aid criminal malpractice. Meanwhile California is about to make those who “lose” the credit card details of their customers responsible for the cost of re-issuing the cards.

Those consutants and suppliers seeking to outsourced, delivery programmes under the guise of “shared service delivery” should be very wary of the ways in which they are likely to be held to account if programmes like the EURIM Transformational Government Dialogues succeed in enlisting a new cadre of ambitious IT-experienced MPs, interested in building their political reputations by promoting the use of IT to deliver better targetted services, not just bigger contracts – and then monitoring performance.

Over a dozen MPs have now signed up to that programme, which also has serious support from Goverment, both Minister and Senior Officials. Most of the MP involved have serious experience as users of IT before they became MPs. And they are looking for inputs from users with similar practical (but current) experience of delivering working solutions: not just suppliers with new technologies to promote. More on this tomorrow.

Interstingly that programme has strong support from major suppliers who are preparing for a new world in which profit comes from delivering the service, not the system. But the politicans need to learn from the experience of users who have been living in that world for over a decade.

Please visit Transformational Government Dialogues take a look at what is being siad, and use this opportunity to make your views known.

More on this tomorrow