Getting the best out of the old and the new in government IT

There is a tension at the heart of public sector IT that, unless resolved, threatens to cause serious government IT failures in the next five years

There is a tension at the heart of public sector IT that, unless resolved, threatens to cause serious government IT failures in the next five years.

If, like me, you have spent time around government technology folk in recent years, you will have heard about two polarised and caricatured versions of today’s Whitehall IT leaders.

The Traditional CIO

In one corner we have Traditional CIO. He (it is usually a “he”) just doesn’t “get it". He is stuck in a world of keeping the lights on, convinced that “digital” is a passing fad that means setting up a Twitter feed.

He is not interested in developing solutions that meet user or citizen requirements; his priorities for compliance lie with locked-down IT and the bureaucracy of procurement.

Traditional CIO still thinks handing a 10-year contract to a systems integrator (SI) is worthy of consideration. 

He is used to spending big money on IT, and unconcerned if projects run massively over schedule or never complete at all – after all, it will be someone else’s problem by then. Shared services are OK, but only when others are sharing what he does.

Granted, Traditional CIO does understand the issues of running big business-critical transactional systems, the importance of performance, resilience and fulfilment, but basically he is on his way out. He is making way for the Digital Messiah.

The Digital Messiah

Young, bright, fresh out of media and internet companies, even Traditional CIO can see they are good developers and that is impressive and was the right place to start. But is a symptom of the underlying problem – to the digital crowd, everything takes place at the web and publishing layer.

Real-world knowledge of major transactional systems is for the old school; Digital Messiah has never run enterprise-grade IT services and it’s easy to be gung-ho and visionary when you are not the one being grilled by the Public Accounts Committee when things don’t work.

But why are there so many of them – much easier just to outsource to an SI, surely? What do they all do, and who holds them to account? However, this is clearly their moment, so some engagement from Traditional CIO is required until things go back to normal – all you need is drop “agile” into the conversation now and then.

The reality

It is not difficult to recognise the clichés on both sides. Well, I have news – you are both right and you are both wrong. To Traditional CIO, I say that Digital Messiah has achieved a great deal in the last three years, not least:

  • Changing the conversation – Even as someone who runs an SME offering cloud and digital services to government, it’s easy to take for granted the ability to have conversations with public sector leaders that would not have happened three years ago. Awareness and admitting there is a problem is the first step to achieving real change, and that has been delivered. Thank you.
  • User-based design – It isn’t the whole answer, but to inspire the government tech community to worry about user needs and experience so it now forms the first, not the last, consideration on IT projects is a huge achievement. I never saw that in 10 years working inside HM government. 10/10.
  • Governance – Information security, procurement and governance have long been a blocker to the delivery of agile, flexible and user-focused technology. While this has not exactly been solved, it is being challenged and progressed at every turn. Some IT spending decisions have been blocked and departments sent back to think again – potentially saving the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds. Bravo.

So, Traditional CIO, where is your evidence of trying something new? Of genuine thought leadership? It’s undeniably difficult to keep the lights on at the same time as keeping abreast of new developments – but after all, you are paid to know where things are going, to constantly think about how technology can enable business outcomes, and to be the advisor on what happens next.

Admittedly, this picture is changing, and public sector CIOs are engaging with the new agenda, but it’s taken too long; we are six years on from the original government cloud strategy and so little has actually been done. 

The problem with Digital Messiah

If genuine technology-enabled, user-focused transformation is desired, then the major underlying operating systems and transactional applications of state have to be tackled.

What use is it to book a GP appointment online when I can’t track my test results in the way I can track a parcel? What benefit will the Internet of Things bring to citizens, if it can’t integrate with antiquated case management or finance systems? In other words, what makes Amazon impressive is its supply chain and fulfilment capability – not its website.

The first step is to be clear on what we are trying to achieve with technology. Agile, open-source and digital are not ends in themselves.

To Digital Messiah, I say: you can put as many Post-it notes on the wall as you want, but at some point, major strategic decisions have to be made across the public sector about what capabilities will be consumed, and from where.

The first step is to be clear on what we are trying to achieve with technology. Agile, open-source and digital are not ends in themselves.

Many departments seem to be in a state of digital confusion. They are typically involved in a range of digital exemplars and pilots. A tiny percentage of the workplace is engaged in these, and is starting to use the language of digital, but the remainder remain outside the charmed circle – and worse, appear unconvinced or disinterested.

While digital projects may be interesting or successful, it is difficult to discern a target architecture, or how these new technologies will replace legacy systems. There is a lack of thinking about alternative options to just developing capabilities in-house.

Even more seriously, given that many government outsourcing deals are due to come up for re-tender in the next two years, it is difficult to access (at least publicly) detailed thought on how these will be re-procured to ensure the UK makes the most of new technology options and approaches. Talking about “towers” and putting the acronym “SIAM” over an existing architecture doesn’t make any difference.  

A new wrapper on old stuff

Government technology should be looking to enable increased automation, enhanced collaboration and maximum optimisation. The business has to do the rest. These outcomes cannot be delivered by traditional technology at a reasonable price and they cannot be delivered in their entirety by the current digital approach, which is in danger of simply layering a new wrapper over the old stuff.

Many of these government capabilities will need to be delivered from public cloud platforms – this means not defaulting to the in-house development of products and adapting the business to consume capabilities in as non-bespoke a way as possible.  

It is not about the odd tactical deployment of infrastructure as a service here and software as a service (SaaS) there. It’s about new technology architectures for government bodies, that use the best bits of GDS thinking – valuing developers, keeping data open, user focus – at the same time as intelligently selecting an appropriate number of enterprise-grade cloud platforms to deliver many of the more horizontal requirements, such as case management, HR, asset management, payments, etc.

To do this, you need people who understand enterprise-grade technology; who understand the trade-offs that sometimes have to be made in the face of operational imperatives; but also understand where the world is going and want to get there too.

Business architects

You need business architects who understand both old and new technology but who are driven by customers and business outcomes. It is true, things have changed – you don’t need 100 consultants and two years to formulate a strategy any more – but you do need a vision, some architectural principles, an idea of how much it will cost and a high-level plan. This can be done in weeks, at the most, several months.

You need people that understand platform-based business models and the underpinning technology. You need people who understand the possibilities of new technology but also the constraints of the sector.

If you are going to struggle to recruit top-quality developers then you might want to choose a commercial platform that offers point-and-click development capabilities rather than full development from the bottom up. Yes, you will be reliant to some extent on that public cloud vendor, but then you are always dependent on someone when it comes to technology – whether it is three developers in a garage, a global SaaS player or your in-house IT team.

So who are the people described above, and where can they be found?

The bad news is there are very few individuals who can cover all those bases. The good news, however, is that between them, the caricatures outlined earlier possess most, if not all, of that experience and knowledge. The problem is, egos would need to be put to one side, and the group would need to work together from the start in a spirit of open-mindedness and humility with a sincere desire to learn from the other.

The message is this: Stop rolling your eyes at each other and start making eyes at each other – for the good of the country. We don’t want to start paying for the next IT fiasco before we have finished paying off the last lot.   

James Herbert (pictured) is managing director at consultancy Methods Digital.

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