IT leaders spell out what they want from final Blair government

On the steps of 10 Downing Street after he won the general election Tony Blair said his final years as prime minister would be...

On the steps of 10 Downing Street after he won the general election Tony Blair said his final years as prime minister would be shaped by what he had heard during the campaign, and he would continue to listen.

As the government announced the programme for its third term last week, the IT user community called for the burden of legislation to be lifted, more investment in skills, greater opportunities for SMEs, and more transparency in how government awards contracts and runs public sector IT projects.

Stephen Way, e-commerce and IT manager at bullion company Johnson Matthey, said the government did not consult broadly enough when assessing the impact of new regulation.

"I would hope that the new government adopts a considered approach to legislation requiring corporate compliance, taking advice from industry bodies to avoid unnecessary development work and systems changes, while still promoting best practice and corporate governance.

"There has been a headlong rush into legislation that has required considerable effort to reach compliance," he said.

Jack Goodhew, head of IT at the Port of Dover, made the same point. "On a daily basis we can see the effects and costs of a largely uncoordinated approach to legislation," he said.

"Try balancing the Data Protection Act with the Freedom of Information Act, for example. Add to this other government regulations regarding retention of data such as financial records, commercial tenders, health and safety, building regulations, then try designing a data archive and back-up regime which satisfies all these. The vision of 'joined-up government' is still a long way off."

Skills remain high on IT directors' agendas. Margaret Smith, chief executive of IT directors group CIO Connect, said the government needs a strategy to make sure the trend towards offshore outsourcing does not damage the IT skills base.

"There needs to be a concerted plan of action to make sure young up-and-coming graduates do not get put off IT as a profession," she said.

Nick Leake, director of operations and infrastructure at ITV, said the government should invest in technology skills across the board. "It should also sort out A-levels to provide a broader-based curriculum with vocational qualifications complementing academic skills and more, better-quality maths, science and technology teachers," he said.

In the public sector, IT managers said the government should emphasise the link between IT investment, e-government and the 2.5% efficiency gains expected over the next three years.

Richard Steel, head of IT at Newham Council in London, said, "I want the government to understand that radical change takes time, has to be nourished and sustained, and cannot be made to fit with political expedients."

National and local government have made some impressive progress towards joining up services, but this is no more than a good start, Steel said. "The impression given is that we have done e-government. It should rather be seen as continuing to build the impetus for service integration and electronic delivery, and the infrastructure and support put in place for the programme should be strengthened - not disassembled."

Other concerns raised by IT leaders who contacted Computer Weekly included lack of transparency in government IT procurement and a need for rigid processes to prevent further government IT failures. Unless the government takes heed of the profession, the high-tech image will be little more than gloss.


Promote opportunities for smaller IT services companies to prove their worth

Michael Gough, chief executive, National Computing Centre

We need to re-establish the mid-tier of IT service companies in the UK in order to recreate the supply chain for IT skills.

As the UK IT services sector consolidated through the 1990s, a mid-tier gap was created between the largest suppliers and the UK's growing population of small and medium-sized enterprises.

The SME community now finds it difficult to do business with larger organisations, on both the supply and demand side of the industry. When skills are sought for the larger projects, commentators too readily hail the onset of another skills shortage.

Although there may be acute shortages of qualified and experienced project managers, there is not a real skills shortage, but a lack of visibility of the skills in the local IT market. A mid-tier on the supply side is now missing, which encourages UK-based organisations to outsource.

Cities such as Manchester and Liverpool have a thriving digital industries sector with hundreds of SME suppliers representing considerable capability that is not visible to the corporate purchaser of IT services.

The West Midlands has its own trade association which can influence the Regional Development Agency's IT investments, out of which have come funded programmes such as Open Advantage - a significant investment in the promotion of open source software in business.

A strong indigenous IT capability is essential for growing and sustaining a strong knowledge-based economy. Plugging the gap in the mid-tier would significantly improve the supply of skills throughout the industry, and reinforce the onshore market.

To address the problem the government and venture capital communities could target IT service companies in the mid-band.

The government could address its own procurement guidelines to stop discriminating against SMEs, many of which are disqualified from tendering for work because of their size. It could insist on IT certification and accreditation schemes that make visible the quality in the growing ranks of the SME IT community, thereby enhancing their business potential.


Tackle the skills and opportunities equation - more of both       

Ian Rickwood, chief executive, Institute for the Management of Information Systems   

To support the UK IT industry, the government needs to: 

  • Take the need to maintain the skills of the UK workforce seriously. That means allowing personally-funded training and updating costs to be offset against tax, and those following industry-recognised development programmes to be exempt from income tax and national insurance for the time they spend undergoing training. 
  • Take equal opportunities for women seriously by allowing child and family care expenses to be offset against tax and costs funded by the employer to be tax-exempt, as they are for our overseas competitors.
  • Take the war against e-crime seriously. That means updating the penalties under the Computer Misuse Act and the Data Protection Act so that offences are extraditable and those abusing computer systems and files to aid identity theft, fraud and denial of service can be effectively prosecuted and punished. 
  • Follow good practice in its own planning and procurement of information systems. The government should stop wasting taxpayers' money on grandiose, centralised, big-bang systems that combine the maximum risk with minimum achievement. 
  • Apply rigorous assessment and systems thinking to all proposals for regulation and scrap all those where it is not clear how the intended objectives are to be achieved at an affordable cost.  l Scrap all requirements for the retention of information (for regulatory or law enforcement purposes) where it does not have costed and practical plans as to how to secure and maintain the stored data.


Make compliance easier, don't add to burden of legislation

David Roberts, chief executive, The Corporate IT Forum

The sheer volume of legislation is becoming a significant burden on many corporations. Many businesses now have to comply with so many different types of legislation that it is making it more costly and more difficult for UK plc to operate.

The burden of legislation compliance is falling heavily on the shoulders of corporate IT departments. Adapting complex systems to comply with multiple layers of legislation is very challenging - especially when you cannot predict what is coming.

The government could be working harder to make it easier for businesses to comply. It must try to take a more holistic approach and appreciate the significant impact such high levels of administration and red tape have on businesses. IT professionals must be involved and consulted far earlier in the process - more predictability and clarity is sorely needed.

Another problem is security awareness among home PC users. The government announced its Project Endurance campaign last November, designed to increase awareness of internet security for small businesses and consumers. I congratulate it on the initiative but, although it said the campaign would go live this spring, there has been little evidence of it so far.


Encourage more young people to take up careers in IT

David Clarke, chief executive, British Computer Society

The UK has the chance to remain a leading industrial nation in the future, but only if enough investment is made in the development of computer scientists, engineers and IT professionals.

Our fast-growing competitors understand the strategic importance of this, and sponsor their best people into the IT profession, often through UK-based university activities.

We in the UK do not take this strategic approach, and leave it to the best intentions of individuals and companies. Despite its critical importance to UK plc, nowhere near enough of the UK's best students see the development and application of IT to the benefit of UK businesses as one of the best long-term careers they could have.

The numbers of people coming into the IT profession are reducing at exactly the time we need more of the best people to join it.

The government needs to drive a strategic plan with sufficient and appropriate investment to reverse this worrying trend.

Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)

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