National Audit Office advocates strategic role for BI in government IT

The UK government’s new approach to IT has been articulated and endorsed by the National Audit Office in a report that projects a starring role for business intelligence systems.

Business intelligence (BI) systems appear high on the National Audit Office’s wish list for UK government IT, which cost £16 billion in 2009. In a “Landscape Review” document, published this month, the NAO has made a range of recommendations for ICT (Information and Communications Technology) in government, one of which is for greater and better use of BI.

The NAO maintains that a new dawn has sprung: “The past year has seen radical and rapid changes in the government’s approach to ICT,” which is to be less about mega-projects and more about agility, interoperability, leveraging SME innovation, crowdsourcing and so on – the “Big Society,” in a well-worn phrase.

But the NAO report registers surprise “that there has not been greater emphasis across government on the application of [BI] systems and the business analysis skills needed to apply them.”

“Business intelligence capabilities,” it goes on to say, “are often built into government’s business or back-office systems where they are used for measuring performance of particular services by specialist business analysts. However, it is extremely rare to find these types of systems meaningfully applied at the top level of government bodies where their potential to assist with strengthening financial management and making informed decisions about the future is greatest.”

It has been a theme of the Coalition government, put together in May of last year, that existing data management in government is not fit for purpose. As reported in the Financial Times newspaper, The Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, when recently announcing the government’s streamlining of procurement processes to aid SMEs, made mention of data management shortcomings in government. Maude told corporate executives newly appointed to non-executive roles in government that they will “find the quality of management information [to be] much poorer than [they’ve] been used to.”

The NAO report, under the direction of Sally Howes, has been written up elsewhere in obvious and familiar terms as slamming government IT. More interestingly, it provides some detail as to how better business intelligence might be assured in the months and years to come in government ICT.

The report takes its cue from Maude’s statement of principle on IT made before the election. It also signals the catalysing role seemingly being played by the new Efficiency and Reform Group within the Cabinet Office, led by former Accenture UK managing director and government CIO Ian Watmore.

The NAO cites Maude’s credo in its report: “The UK Government spends more on ICT [per capita] than any other government. And yet the history of UK government ICT projects is littered with budget overruns, delays and functional failures.

“We need fewer huge mega-projects; systems that can talk to each other; a level playing field for open source software and smaller suppliers; to buy off the shelf rather than always seeking bespoke perfection; to open up access to government data; and far more effective procurement and management of projects. We also need a new vision for how government can engage with citizens.”

The report also offers a narrative of UK government IT projects that ushers in a starring role for business intelligence systems, which it acknowledges to have been neglected. BI is one of five broad applications that will structure the government’s approach to ICT. The others are: online services, business systems, back-office systems and infrastructure.

The NAO identifies 30 major cross-government ICT initiatives launched between 2000 and 2010. Its analysis discloses three phases:

• 2000 to 2004: Improving procurement and the functioning of the supply chain – down in part to the establishment of the Office of Government Commerce in 2000.
• 2004 to 2008: A shift towards more citizen-focused initiatives.
• 2008 to 2010: An increase in the number and breadth of initiatives, including cost reductions through consolidation.

Missing is the overarching application of business intelligence systems, which the report broadly identifies as those which “automate the collation, analysis and presentation of financial information, management information and metrics about business performance.” The NAO says that “establishing robust management information about ICT across government – such as total spending on ICT or overall business performance – has proved difficult. This has limited the Cabinet Office’s ability to develop convincing cases for complying with cross-government initiatives and has undermined its ability to effect change.”

The report bewails that the government “has made comparatively little systematic use of business intelligence tools and skill sets to support its high-level decision making.”

Among first steps towards better business intelligence, the NAO says it will investigate geographical information systems to improve decision making and reduce costs at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; and the [use of] business intelligence systems by the Ministry of Defence to improve its management of logistics.

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