End the tick-box mindset

With Ian Watmore elevated to the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, the hunt is on for a new CIO for government. But how will his successor assemble the business processes to ensure the government gets best value on the shared services environment at the centre of Watmore's vision?

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With Ian Watmore elevated to the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, the hunt is on for a new CIO for government. But how will his successor assemble the business processes to ensure the government gets best value on the shared services environment at the centre of Watmore's vision?

In his last major act as CIO, Watmore called time on e-government in favour of "t", for transformation, government, with a three-pronged strategy centred on developing IT around the citizen, fostering a culture of shared services across departments, and enriching the professionalism of IT workers within the sector.

As we make the shift from "e" to "t", there are some key lessons that Watmore's successor must learn. First, targets for targets' sake do not work. The last set of targets, simply aimed at ensuring web presence, distorted the market because the easiest way to meet them was to merely replicate existing processes online, taking no account of process re-engineering opportunities.

This led to curious "online" services that required members of the public to print out and post forms via Royal Mail! Unsurprisingly, these failed to boost Britain's standing internationally.

Second, targets in particular distort research and development, favouring the "tick box" attitude over steady and sustainable change.

Targets for targets' sake

Dealing with my point on targets for targets' sake, the fundamental brake on e-government is not the technology, but the business processes that fail to disseminate best practice between departments, resulting in innovation silos in one department or office. Pushing the services for all 1,300 public sector organisations online by the end of 2005 precluded the chance for successful online service models to evolve and be replicated by other departments. It was simply a stampede for the finish line with little thought for the future.

Regarding research and development, a smarter model of procurement needs to be developed. From a supplier perspective, the public sector supplies a quarter of the UK's total IT spend and represents a £14bn market in the UK. When asked to pitch, suppliers  all too often abandon a proper constructive challenge in favour of complying with the brief. Sadly, the procurement function is best executed when bringing all supplier solutions to a common denominator to make selection easier. This means questions of efficiency and integration with other departments are seldom asked until after the contract has been secured.

Early Treasury involvement in the transformation agenda would go a long way in addressing this. Instead of a restrictive brief for delivering, for example, integrated messaging functioning on a set platform for the Department of Work and Pensions, the Treasury could take one example of best practice from across government and set a price per unit of output measurement based upon this. Suppliers would be free to innovate within this framework, but would be steered toward established systems as a method of keeping the cost down to a defined annual output unit price.

Facilitating shared services

Of course, I am not arguing that activity should be prioritised by short-term predicted cost savings rather than achievability. Rather, the Office of Government Commerce should modify its gateway processes to better facilitate shared services. If the IT infrastructure, rather than human resources and back office applications, were within the first tier of shared services, then a natural convergence of systems and processes would begin to evolve.

Like the Toyota Prius where the ultimate goal is to move away from fuel-inefficient cars toward clean, green electric cars, there needs to be a hybrid technology or platform that will support current needs and be compatible with legacy technology, while providing a clear migration path to next generation technology. Shared services at the communications and infrastructure layer provide just such a path for public-sector IT.

In his short reign as government CIO, Watmore has made significant strides toward the government services we would all wish to see implemented. It is important, however, that his successor does not stick rigidly to the prescribed road map, but instead continues to consult with the private sector and adapt.

Martin Goodman is director of government at Cable & Wireless

 

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