Can the government deliver its ambitious strategy for public sector IT change?

There is no lack of ambition in the government's ICT Strategy Implementation Plan, but how achievable is a turnaround of the public sector's reputation for systemic IT failings?

There is no lack of ambition in the government's ICT Strategy Implementation Plan (SIP), boldly claiming to "fundamentally change how government incorporates ICT". But while the strategy contains a detailed roadmap of how it intends to achieve this aim over 19 areas, how achievable is a turnaround of the public sector's reputation for systemic IT failings?

The government says it is determined to tackle the failures and expense of IT through the publication of the SIP, which puts flesh on the bones of its IT strategy released earlier this year.

To accomplish its goals, the strategy lays out a series of timelines for delivery and areas of risk identification and mitigation, both for the overall strategy and its 19 sub-sections. It also has a list of Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) for each area.

Surreya Cansoy, director of public services at trade body Intellect, said this approach provides an outline of tangible goals for the government to work towards.

"All these areas are at various stages of development, which is to be expected. The key for us is how actively will the government work with industry? For example, open standards is one such area where they are still finding a working definition. As they finalise that answer, the industry would like to be part of that," she said.

Alongside areas outlined in the original strategy, such as open source and opening the market out to more SMEs, the plan contains more comprehensive details of how the government expects to cut costs using cloud computing - expecting to move 50% of IT spend to the cloud by 2015; the Public Services Network (PSN); datacentre consolidation; and the continuation of its moratorium on large IT spend. Overall, the Cabinet Office hopes to save £1.4bn through these measures.

Other areas of the strategy not directly linked to cost cutting but aiming to stimulate economic growth include selecting application programme interface (API) standards to enable a range of new service providers to exploit government data, overseen by director of digital Mike Bracken as the SRO; and plans to exploit existing government data with a new information strategy, with interim head of health informatics Katie Davis as the SRO.

Skills shortage

But arguably one of the most important aspects of the SIP is the government's admission of a skills deficiency in IT. Whitehall has been heavily criticised in the past for outsourcing critical IT skills and strategy. To combat this problem it proposes an ICT professional curriculum for staff and the creation of an IT and CIO Academy.

"To implement new approaches to ICT, such as agile development, open source, or green ICT, government needs an ICT profession that is committed collectively and personally to keeping up to date with emerging industry practice and has access to training and professional development," said the strategy.

David Clarke, CEO of BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, said: "We're particularly interested in the government's plan to increase the capability of its ICT professionals at all levels. The effective use of and application of technology needs to be driven by highly skilled IT professionals within government enabling.

"Government's plans to develop and retain their own skilled ICT talent with clearly defined career pathways, progression and support are critical to the success of its entire strategy," he said.

Challenges ahead

However, one area which is typically unclear is the impact on local authorities - council IT chiefs regularly point to the lack of local thinking in central government IT. The SIP is mandatory for central departmental yearly spend of £6.5bn, but not the overall £16-17bn of ICT spend across the entire public sector.

Projects such as the PSN have a crossover between local and central government. David Wilde, CIO of Essex County Council, believes that central and local governments could both benefit from the development of the PSN but says that Whitehall must involve local authorities in some of the strategic details.

"The government is right to develop a central PSN and allow local governments to develop networks at their own pace, but we should be involved in the process of standard setting," he said. Wilde adds that the relationship between the PSN and G-Cloud is currently unclear, and is sceptical about how some elements of the G-Cloud will be used across local governments.

Another area of concern is whether the strategy's aim to open the ICT market to more SMEs will be seen through, especially as some small businesses have already criticised the government's move to a more centralised model of buying, which they say has precluded some SMEs from the procurement process.

Martyn Hart, chairman of the National Outsourcing Association (NOA), says the SIP needs more detail on how to create a leaner and more efficient procurement system that is more inclusive of small businesses.

"[The government must] work with suppliers to cut down the ridiculously long procurement times. It takes government at least 12-24 months to decide what they want, at huge costs to both themselves and potential suppliers. This is a major barrier to SMEs getting involved, who simply do not have the resources to bid. The NOA suggests there should be a formalised strategic goal of completing procurements in six to nine months," he said.

The government has set itself a huge challenge with this strategy, particularly its extensive list of publicly accountable and measurable deadlines, and, cliched though it may be to say, only time will tell whether the aims of the SIP will be achieved.

Intellect's Cansoy says the SIP provides a robust outline of how the government can work towards its ICT goals. "What this strategy has which has been lacking in the past is a strong sense of leadership. I think this is something that [Cabinet Office minister] Francis Maude is personally interested in, preferring to work with tangible milestones and metrics. You can see that influence in the plan," she said.

Cansoy believes all areas of government must collaborate in reaching the milestones laid out in the SIP if it is to work: "Success will depend on buy-in from government departments, the CIO delivery board is playing a key role in that and involving SROs from across government is a good way of getting departments behind the plan."

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