Inspiring vision or pipedream? Tash Shifrin finds that government plans to transform public services with the aid of IT are in urgent need of more detail and clear lines of responsibility
Imagine a public sector IT project so big that the £6.2bn NHS IT programme is just one part of it. A scary idea? Or a brave step towards a new world of more accessible, more efficient, more coherent public services? Several months after Tony Blair launched his Transformational Government strategy, IT professionals and analysts are still getting to grips with what the scheme might mean in practice.
Transformational Government aims to improve public service delivery through technology. The idea is to create services that are designed around their users, while increasing efficiency. The strategy covers the entire public sector – from local government and education, to the NHS and the criminal justice system.
Plans call for greater data sharing between government departments and a huge increase in shared services for core functions, such as finance and human resources – with tens, rather than hundreds, of providers.
Following recent troubled IT initiatives at the Child Support Agency, the Immigration and Nationality Directorate and HM Revenue and Customs, the plan also aims for a “broadening and deepening” of government professionalism in managing IT projects, and a new “government IT profession” is being created.
But the strategy is short on specifics. Efficiency gains are to be “substantial”, but it is not clear how large. The £21bn savings required by the Gershon Report on public sector efficiency cover only the period up to 2008, but the Transformational Government strategy has a longer timeframe.
An indication of the scale comes from the Cabinet Office, which says shared services ought to bring savings “in the order of 20%” over “a reasonably long period of time”.
There are many more questions about how this aim, and the rest of the strategy, will be put into practice.
An implementation plan published in March offers little detail and reveals many gaps. So many elements are yet to be thought through that there are 32 separate references to November 2006 – the next big milestone, when work to fill in the gaps is due to be completed. It all looks a bit sketchy.
“It is not a programme,” says a Cabinet Office spokesman. Instead, transformational government should be seen as a “meta-programme” – a series of programmes outlining “a vision of where government could be going in the next five to 10 years”.
The implementation plan’s first phase covers public sector IT projects already under way, such as the NHS’s National Programme for IT (NPfIT) and a new criminal justice system. Phase two is due to start next year, and the strategy stretches beyond 2011.
But the remainder of the strategy is less clear. Andrea Di Maio, research vice-president at analyst firm Gartner, says, “There are question marks all over the place.” He highlights a lack of clarity over what the transformed services will look like. Despite glimpses of an enterprise architecture model, most of the focus is on the technical side.
“Selecting the tools, deciding who is in charge – those elements seem to be missing. To make a transformation, there should be a shared view, not just of the technology, but the processes, people’s roles, and so on,” says Di Maio.
It is the relationship between changes to business practice in public services and the technology that concerns Peter Ryder, president of public sector IT mangers association Socitm. “IT is the enabler. The people in the services need to drive the transformation. When you have that ethos, then IT will come into play to enable that change to happen. It is not an IT issue – it is about the organisation,” he says.
Butler Group senior research analyst Mike Davis stresses the need for a cultural change among those delivering public services. There is little point in installing a new customer relationship management system unless staff are customer-focused, trained and engaged, he says. “The change management element is much more important that the technology.”
The Cabinet Office says that although business change and technical change are inextricably linked, the key point in the lead on this is the business, strategic element. The strategy is not starting from the technology.
Under the strategy, customer group directors will look at how services can be improved for particular groups, such as the elderly. A Service Transformation Board will oversee their work, and the CIO Council will supervise the IT agenda. A Pan-Government Shared Services Board has also been set up.
The implementation plan also promises an enterprise architecture and a standard technical architecture for data sharing by November.
Glyn Evans, a member of the CIO Council and director of business solutions and IT at Birmingham City Council, says even on the CIO Council there are differing views on whether business change or IT will be the main driver. “There is a spread of opinion. I am strongly in the first camp: this is about looking at how we deliver services, then getting the IT to facilitate it. It is not about a major IT project,” he says.
“Birmingham Council has a policy that we do not run IT projects – we run change projects,” says Evans. “I think that is where we want to go. But I am not sure everyone on the CIO Council is in the same space at the moment. I do not want transformational government ‘delivered’ by technology – that is what we have tried in recent years and it has not delivered that change.”
Another area yet to be agreed on is how the IT infrastructure to deliver transformed services will be introduced. Will existing systems be ripped out and replaced, or developed more gradually?
Evans says, “An evolutionary approach – that is what I would hope to see. But I am not sure everyone agrees. There are people looking for a big architecture.”
Evans argues for “standards, not standardisation”, allowing data to be shared by organisations using a range of legacy systems that can be developed in an evolutionary way.
One factor that may be telling is the lack of extra finance. The government aims to carry the changes through without increasing the total spend of £14bn on major systems. Government departments will fund their plans from their own investment pots, says the Cabinet Office, although it adds, “There may be specific pieces of work that money may need to be found for.”
Proposals for the future shape of shared corporate services, such as finance and human resources – likely to be a major part of any future procurement – will be drawn up by November in each of the nine public sector segments of education, health, criminal justice, local government, the Department for Work and Pensions, defence, HM Revenue and Customs, multiple agencies and the rest of central government.
Ryder is cautious about how far shared services should go. “We should not share services for the sake of it. There must be a good business case for each move.”
According to Ryder, the e-government initiative to make more public services accessible on the web is an example of the government prescribing changes that are of mixed benefit on the ground. “They started by asking us what we were doing and ended up judging us by a traffic-light system. You were forced to e-enable all the services you could to get the ticks. But not every e-enabled service was appropriate,” he says.
Di Maio also raises concerns about the shared services proposals. “There is not a clear understanding by everyone of what shared services actually means. If you talk to different people across government, you will hear all sorts of answers,” he says.
If the government cannot provide a clear answer, suppliers will come up with their own, warns Di Maio. “In the implementation plan, it looks as if they are asking the market. This is one of the most dangerous mistakes you can make. It is not up to the market, but up to the government. They need internal resources devoted to this – they must own the management of it,” he says.
Nick Kalisperas, director for markets at IT suppliers body Intellect, also fears a “lack of ownership” and wants to see managerial responsibility tightened. “In the past, procurements have run into trouble because they have had the specifications changed halfway through,” he says.
Now the Cabinet Office says it is looking at the possibility of putting together an “overarching governance mechanism” to cover the potentially huge shared services contracts.
How many of the possibilities will be nailed down by November remains to be seen. But Di Maio points out that the strategy, which extends beyond the next five years, will have to be secured in the long term too.
“There will be elections, and what happens then may shift the emphasis,” he says. “Future-proofing is crucial.”
TIMETABLE FOR TRANSFORMATIONAL GOVERNMENT
Phase 1: November 2005 to July 2007
● Delivering current programmes including the NHS national IT programme, new systems for the criminal justice system and Harnessing Technology in education.
● Key milestone for many developments outlined in the implementation plan.
Phase 2: August 2007 to 2011 (following 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review)
● Transforming support, with shared services framework.
● Realising financial and service benefits of investments.
● Embedding key changes and new cultures.
● Transforming delivery, with public services centred around citizens and businesses.
Phase 3: beyond 2011
● Further radical change in the delivery of public services.
● Citizens and businesses serving themselves – at home, at work or on the move.
● Public servants empowered by technology in their roles.
● Boundaries between departments, between central and local government, and between public, private and voluntary sectors becoming less important and less visible to citizens and business.