Opinion: How public sector could save £4bn on IT without cutting jobs

Peter Gershon might be right when he says in his efficiency review that the public sector can save between £2bn and £4bn on IT bills, and I would argue that it might not be necessary to cut jobs and projects because savings could come through better value gained from engaged relationships

Peter Gershon might be right when he says in his efficiency review that the public sector can save between £2bn and £4bn on IT bills, and I would argue that it might not be necessary to cut jobs and projects because savings could come through better value gained from engaged relationships, writes Liz Hartnett, a researcher at the Open University Business School

Engagement matters because it can save public sector money and jobs, but many misunderstand what engagement is.

For instance, at a recent BCS Elite group meeting, someone complained that supermarket delivery service Ocado had set up a Facebook group for customer engagement, but having got over 800 people interested, the company initially made little response to customer comments, taking it only as another opportunity to market itself. Such behaviour demonstrated lack of serious commitment to practising engagement.

But following a project methodology doesn't necessarily lead to engagement, because engagement is soft behaviour. So what is engagement?

Engagement to me means combining the ability to communicate with knowledge-ability.

• Knowledge-ability means giving and receiving information, skills, ideas, know-how, and adapting with it, so using each other's feedback.

• Communication-ability means getting the right place, time, and documents together with the right people to share and to make sense of what each other is saying, able to question, negotiate ideas and meanings.

With little cost, engaged clients and consultants can save millions because they are talking to each other, getting to know each other enough to discover common values and aims, and learn to trust each other.

For example, clients who talk informally with their IT consultants can expand on the nuances of a requirement specification, consequently getting the system they really want and can afford, rather the one they had specified.

As another example, consider a consultant who talks with and can point out to a client that there is a 16% agency fee for supplying contractors, but if the client is prepared to manage the contractors, then the consultant can remove the agency fee, so the client saves money and the contractors keep their jobs. It is an opportunity, but it's a risk too. To get to realise this opportunity requires people getting to know each other well enough to identify what they've got in common and what risks they can share.

To share knowledge and that risk requires trust from both parties, trust built through engagement. The resulting financial value can easily reach hundreds of thousands of pounds. And what does the decision cost? It costs time to talk and find out about each other, discover common values and aims, to balance how much they could trust each other before taking a risk. And then engagement saves the public sector money, and engagement also saves jobs.

I know this because my research has revealed several successful IT projects in the public sector, projects where through engagement people have

• Become motivated to share

• Combined their knowledge

• Anticipated value

• Built trust.

Engaged behaviour enabled people to achieve successful IT projects on time, to scope and to spec more easily and saved public sector money. Let our public servants engage with their IT suppliers because engagement is low-cost and gives high value.

Read more on IT project management

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