More than just another government tsar

New role makes Watmore the man to challenge Whitehall conservatism

 New role makes Watmore the man to challenge Whitehall conservatism

If Ian Watmore wanted a sinecure when he left supplier Accenture two weeks ago, then accepting the job of head of IT for the public sector was a poor decision.

His is the first role of its kind in UK government - and it comes with a job description that stretches further than the eye can see.

He is to provide strategic leadership to IT projects and programmes across central government, taking into account core transaction systems, including those that support the collection of taxes and the payments of tens of billions of pounds in welfare benefits. His remit takes in hundreds of local councils and the NHS.

He is also responsible for encouraging the public and businesses to make better use of e-government services such as online tax self-assessment forms. The remainder of his tasks include advising on everything from smartcards to seeing that all departments have secure intranet connections.

"It is a new role," said Watmore, in his first interview since taking the job two weeks ago. "It subsumes some of what Andrew Pinder had in his previous role as e-envoy, but it also has other responsibilities. It is more analogous to a group chief information officer role of a conglomerate rather than particularly e-envoy."

Watmore's title is head of the Cabinet Office's e-government unit. It is a job that is likely to require as much tact as resolve, which is why some believe he got it. One of his aims is to help departmental IT and business leaders save billions of pounds, in part by unifying business processes and IT systems across government - something successive prime ministers have wanted but have not managed to effect.

Three objectives

By the time Watmore leaves, he wants to have achieved three things. "I want people to have internal and external confidence in the government's ability to change services with IT.

"I want everyone inside and outside an organisation to have the confidence that if they are going to make a change we know how to do it; and not to believe that if they make this change, there is a big risk of our fouling it up."

If he succeeds it would be self-evident. There would not be the "public failures and disasters in the numbers we have had in the past".

His second goal is to bring together people across government who have individual accountabilities but also work as a team at chief information officer level and in the wider community of IT professionals, all of them "doing what is right in their own areas but also what is right for the whole of government".

And Watmore's third aim is to see through the efficiencies that are at the heart of the Gershon Review, published in July. This envisaged auditable savings across government departments of £20bn by 2008, with the possible resulting loss of more than 84,000 posts.

Grand vision

It is a grand vision, but he does not have a huge team to support him. His new unit occupies an unprepossessing office block overlooking the less-than picturesque roof of Victoria Station. But he is not fazed by the challenge. Nor is he gung ho. He said he will "add value and give advice, not set central dictates".

The main stimulus for change is the Gershon Review. "The important thing is that what was in the Gershon Review has been locked into the public spending plans for the next four years. So now every department has a financial settlement based on the assumption that it makes these changes to its processes and technologies.

"[Departments] will have to look at how they can simplify their processes, how they can take advantage of common IT platforms across government, and what can they learn from other people who may already be a bit further down the track."

He said the pressure to make the efficiency savings will break down the barriers in government.

Some may scoff at Watmore's optimism, believing that he will be thwarted by the imperishable ability of Whitehall mandarins to resist any radical change imposed by politicians. This time the sceptics may be wrong.

The key tasks

  • Build confidence in the government's ability to change services with IT
  • Create a government-wide board of CIOs
  • See through IT and business process changes needed to deliver savings sought by Gershon Review.

Watmore's tough task>>

Read more on IT legislation and regulation