We can see splendid aspirations from the main political parties regarding the use of online services to transform public service delivery. Turning these into practical delivery requires first that government rebuilds its in-house skills as an intelligent customer, writes Ian Rickwood, chief executive of the Institute for the Management of Information Systems.
The social, economic and funding crises facing the next government have a common cause: a belief by politicians that they can use complex information systems to run the UK from Whitehall. They are reinforced in this belief by:
- Economists and analysts who draw false conclusions from data sources that are more toxic waste than strategic asset
- Management consultants who combine delusions of grandeur with lack of understanding as to how large organisations work and ordinary human beings respond
- ICT professionals who claim they can do anything, "if only the users would make up their minds about what they want".
The problems facing the new government, include:
A public sector funding crisis caused by throwing good money after bad on grandiose programmes with muddled objectives and performance measures divorced from reality
- A financial crisis caused by institutions not being able to understand the combination of risks they were running and tick-box regulatory regimes
- Crumbling and increasingly overloaded and vulnerable critical infrastructures: from roads and railways through to power supply and telecommunications
- An ageing population and rising global competition for fuel and raw materials.
The effective use of ICT could be used to support a coherent strategy that brings together:
- A smart low-carbon economy (because we will not be able to afford the gas, diesel and coal for the standby generators when the lights start going out in 2012)
- Better information management and governance to support lower overhead, better targeted, delivery of public services, using pensioner volunteers to further cut costs
- Access to world-class communications driven by communities working with local businesses and councils to overcome incumbent national vested interests.
But more than 25 years ago the first chairman of the Parliamentary IT Committee, Ian Lloyd, said that what we most needed from the information technology revolution was "automated abattoirs for sacred cows". We are still breeding new sacred cows, using the doctrine of ministerial infallibility to enshrine the latest knee-jerk reaction from his press office to a Daily Mail headline.
What should we, as the professional body for the management of information systems, seek from the next government?
- We might do worse than the Google motto: "to do no harm".
- Tax-free training to enable us to rebuild our professional skills base
- Repeal IR35,
- Allow personally funded training to be offset against earnings
- Exempt employees following professionally accredited training (including supervised work experience) programmes from PAYE and national insurance
- 100% tax allowance and zero valuation for business rates for new investment in power and communications infrastructures provided they are operational by the end of 2012. This timeline allow only bottleneck removal plus local networks and micro-generation but that should be sufficient to kick-start some of the changes needed.
- Quality audits of central government information systems akin to those carried out by the Audit Commission on local government: to be followed by a cull of those which are unfit for purpose (eg random or systemic errors) or no longer needed (initiative terminated or never got off the ground) and the transfer of those which must be turned around to those who have demonstrated their competence in running such systems.