Whitehall could learn valuable lessons from a major IT change programme under way in Northern Ireland, analysts said this week.
As reported in Computer Weekly last week, the £800m programme will consolidate IT systems and services across 11 government departments. It features a raft of integration projects, including the merger of at least 10 datacentres, and the creation of a single data network and a single finance system.
While Northern Ireland has been quietly working towards shared services and the efficiency gains they can deliver, the civil service in the rest of the UK has been accused of suffering from inertia when it comes to forcing through change.
Reasons cited for resisting system integration and consolidation include the size of Whitehall departments, the security of sharing sensitive data, and system complexity.
But the excuses need to stop said Rakesh Kumar, research vice-president at analyst firm Gartner. "Size is an issue, but you can scale up some of the processes and so increase financial savings. You can look at projects such as thin client technology and reducing office printing levels."
Security no excuse
"Departments might have to be more cautious because they hold sensitive data. But this is no valid reason for not going ahead with institutional change," said Kumar.
Philip Virgo, strategic adviser to the Institute for the Management of Information Systems, agreed. He said security measures would not need to be any greater than those put in place by large commercial organisations.
"The automated systems that handle telephone billing in the UK, or City clearing systems, are far bigger, more complex and more secure than anything in government."
The inertia inherent in the civil service is, Virgo said, due to the culture of a large bureaucracy.
"There is a massive cultural problem. They have people who have been there for over 20 years and have grown used to big systems. There is a culture of thinking bad practice is good practice," he said.
Bill McCluggage, Northern Ireland's director of e-government, who is overseeing the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) IT programme, said sharing experiences with other organisations in the UK could be helpful.
"Everyone is different and we are only the size of a large local authority. I am not sure one size fits all, but you can share best practice," he said.
Importance of user buy-in
McCluggage said the NICS had spent time building support for the programme among users. "We formulated a concept, then ran a series of group engagement activities, getting business leaders together and socialising the idea. There was a lot of legwork, but it generated a degree of consensus."
However, Virgo said Whitehall's complicated rules, such as those governing the benefits system, need to be simplified before systems can be consolidated.
"Whitehall has very complicated rule books which it tries to automate without sorting them out. You cannot take a convoluted and irrational set of rules and simply automate them. You have to refine them first," he said.
Virgo also advised against changing too much at once. "The way forward is to separate out the volume and complexity. Use simple systems to handle the high-volume stuff and interface these with small systems to handle complexity.
"Departments need a path of incremental change within a strategic framework - break these big systems down into manageable projects and do them separately," he said.