Wanted: IT tsar to knock Whitehall into 21st century

Government responsibility for IT is fragmented and rests within each department. Michael Cross examines the key decision makers...

Government responsibility for IT is fragmented and rests within each department. Michael Cross examines the key decision makers and considers the issues involved in bringing them together to create IT policy that delivers clear benefits.

Nowadays the Government seems to have more tsars than a Romanov family séance. We have seen the appointment of a drugs tsar, a homeless tsar, a cancer tsar and a tsar to look after the interests of the elderly.

Although the imperial titles are not official, ministers rarely object to their use. By appointing a high-profile individual to take charge of a major issue that cuts across departmental boundaries, ministers can at least be seen to be doing something about the problem.

With few issues impinging more on departments than IT, is it not time to appoint an IT tsar, perhaps with a title like Her Majesty's Chief Information Officer? Ministers certainly seem to be moving in that direction within departments, though not across government departments as a whole.

The highest profile departmental tsar is the NHS's recently appointed director-general of IT, Richard Granger. He is charged with running a £5bn modernisation programme across an organisation employing 1.2 million people. This is the first time in NHS history that an individual, or even a single organisation, has been put in charge of all IT issues.

In hiring Granger, the Department of Health was following the Home Office's lead late last year when it appointed Jo Wright, previously of IBM, as its director general of IT. Wright has an almost equally daunting job - to get different components of the criminal justice system, such as police forces, prosecutors and probation services, sharing information.

Divided loyalties
However, like their illustrious predecessor Nikolas II, these new departmental tsars may find it difficult to exercise authority. Granger, for example, is supposed to run his empire through a network of 28 chief information officers appointed by strategic health authorities. The snag is that these officers are being recruited locally, at advertised salaries of up to £100,000, and so may feel greater loyalty to their local authority than to the central agenda championed by the tsar.

When lines of interest run across the government machine as well as up and down it, the picture becomes even more complex. Different departments frequently have different IT priorities - the Home Office for example is more interested in fighting crime than encouraging e-commerce. The latest falling out is between the Department of Health, which is trying to reduce the number of IT companies supplying the NHS, and the Department for Trade and Industry, which is trying to nurture start-ups in this area.

Conflicts of this kind generally end up at the desk of the e-envoy, Andrew Pinder, at least when he hears about them. But Pinder, despite his direct line of communication to the prime minister, is a long way from being a chief information officer.

Pinder's main responsibility is to nurture the e-economy: his urgent target is to make the UK the best place in the world for e-commerce by 31 December 2002. His other tasks are to end the digital divide and to ensure that all government services are available electronically by 31 December 2005.

This last responsibility takes him deep into the realm of government IT systems. The snag is that Pinder has no direct responsibility for IT projects in individual government departments. He also has no power whatsoever over the organisations responsible for handling 80% of government transactions with citizens - local authorities.

The Office of the E-envoy, made up largely of the old Central IT Unit (CITU) and Central Computing and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA) is part of the Cabinet Office. When the national strategy for local e-government is published on 28 October 2003, it will come from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Ministerial absence
Another glaring gap is at ministerial level. Derek Wyatt, Labour MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey and an Internet enthusiast, has been pointing this out for years. "I've always said there should be a Chancellor of the Exchequer and a Chancellor of the Internet," he says.

But even Wyatt concedes that the Government is moving in the right direction. He welcomes the appointment of Stephen Timms, minister of state for e-commerce and competitiveness, in last May's mini-shuffle. However Timms does not sit in the Cabinet - the "e-minister" at Cabinet level remains his boss Patricia Hewitt, secretary of state for trade and industry.

That's too far from the real centre of power, says Wyatt. "Timms should be in the Cabinet Office, not the DTI. It can't be left to separate policy wonks in different departments."

The Cabinet Office, of course, has its own e-ministers. Lord Macdonald of Tradeston runs the overall modernisation programme, but has passed most of the e-government portfolio to Douglas Alexander, minister of state.

As for local e-government, the minister responsible is Nick Raynsford, minister of state in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, though Christopher Leslie MP, a mere parliamentary undersecretary, seems to be picking up the day-to-day tasks.

Civil service power base
But the one individual who holds more power than anyone else over government IT projects does not sit in Parliament, nor is he a career civil servant. He is Peter Gershon, chief executive of the Office of Government Commerce (OGC). This Treasury agency was set up in 2000 to sharpen up the government's shopping skills. Although Gershon's first targets were bulk commodity purchases such as water and electricity, more and more of his time is taken up trying to reduce the mis-management of IT projects. Both the Ministry of Defence and Department of Health have voluntarily submitted their IT projects to scrutiny under the OGC's Gateway Review process, originally set up for civil central government only. Local authorities are likely to follow suit.

The OGC's power stems partly from the Treasury connection and partly from the personality of Gershon himself. The former chief executive of BAE Systems has the intellect of a civil service mandarin coupled with a steely ruthlessness honed while running a major defence company. Gershon shows no particular enthusiasm for IT for its own sake and is a merciless critic of sloppy thinking, whether it comes from civil servants, politicians or industry.

All are excellent qualifications for an IT tsar. Even his name has historical resonance. But whether Tsar Gershon would be remembered as Peter the Great or Peter the Terrible has yet to be seen.

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