The Transformational Government initiative goes back to 2005, when Tony Blair was looking for a strategy on how IT might transform public services. "The future of public services has to use technology to give citizens choice," he declared at the time.
The strategy is not just about reforming public services but also sets ambitious plans for IT. It is expected to play a major role in the government's plans to improve economic productivity and social justice. The aim is to provide "overall technology leadership" in driving back-office efficiency and transforming the way public services are provided.
Savings and services
Councils and government departments want to save money and to improve service delivery by tailoring services to individuals and keeping them simple.
Examples of how transformational government might work include data sharing, so that citizens don't need to contact up to eight different agencies with the same information, and using the web to provide more services. Despite skills shortages and a potential lack of competitiveness in the UK IT industry, technology is increasingly expected to come to the rescue of the initiative.
Glyn Evans, assistant to the chief executive on transformation at Birmingham Council, believes transformational government is a broad topic that can mean many things to IT professionals. "Transformation means different things to different people," he said. "Councils need to decide for themselves what they need to do. Most of the technology is already there, but we've never got the most out of it.
"IT is fundamental to transformation, but it's not enough. You need to be much more radical, and change the people, processes and organisational structure as well."
Evans added that transformation in local government is very different to central government. "In central government, projects are bigger in volume. In councils, the services being transformed are more personalised."
It was telling that a recent Cabinet Office conference on the topic, held in conjunction with IT trade association Intellect, focused more on changing government than on adressing the IT challenges.
The strategy is about a culture change. The Cabinet Office's director of transformational government, Alexis Cleveland, said it was about "putting the customer at the heart of everything we do". The idea is that councils and government departments will look at what services customers want, and then use IT to provide them in a way that's easy to access and use.
John Higgins, director general of Intellect, insisted that communication between IT and government was improving.
"The industry often used to feel something wasn't right about a project, but would go along with it anyway because the government said that was what it wanted," he said.
"Communication between what and how has always been a challenge but I think it's getting better, and eventually they'll overcome these problems," he added. "I think it's right that the emphasis is on the outcome, not the technology. It's reasonably well understood how to get the best out of IT."
At an industry level, said Higgins, the global nature of the industry meant it would always be able to cope with the increase in demand, but warned, "The UK IT industry will not be able to play a part in this unless it does address its skills issues. If the UK industry wants to be attractive to global suppliers, it will have to do more work."
Higgins said that more backing for sector skills councils like e-skills UK was the best way for the government to support the UK's future competitiveness. "What we don't need is more initiatives," he said.
But even though the industry has its work cut out, the transformational agenda should be a good opportunity for IT professionals, said Higgins.
"They're the people right at the heart of making change a reality," he said. "They should see it as a great opportunity. It is a very exciting time for people who understand what technology can do. They need to be letting their colleagues know what's possible, and pushing themselves to be right at the front of the changes."