The right fit for public IT

IT-enabled business change in the public sector needs to be supported by an approach that harnesses the full potential of technology within an overarching vision of public service delivery. This can only be achieved if it is based on an understanding of what citizens are demanding from public service providers. In other words, services that are tailored to their users.

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IT-enabled business change in the public sector needs to be supported by an approach that harnesses the full potential of technology within an overarching vision of public service delivery. This can only be achieved if it is based on an understanding of what citizens are demanding from public service providers. In other words, services that are tailored to their users.

Technology can and will stimulate radical improvements in service delivery, but only where people are placed at the heart of new and existing systems. This requires all of us working in this area to address the issue of public trust, which is at an all-time low. 

The challenge for government and industry is to adapt existing services to citizens' demands and work in partnership to address future demands. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but citizens need to know that their needs can be met quickly and effectively.

Therefore, any kind of change to public service using technology needs to be properly planned. Although this may seem obvious, transforming public services goes far beyond just technical or organisational change.

Costs and benefits

Too often public sector IT projects are cited as "invariably" costing more than planned and delivering little benefit. In reality, the projects that grab the headlines are mainly those that introduce changes in the way people work - both citizens accessing services and staff providing them. In such projects, IT is just one component. An understanding of the wider business change is often overlooked or, perhaps more worryingly, is not understood. 

Pure IT projects are delivered every day - upgrading computers and networks to do the same job as old equipment but faster, better and cheaper. These do go wrong sometimes but only in the same way as other complex projects in construction or engineering, such as the London Eye, Millennium Stadium, Jubilee Line Extension - all projects that in the longer term have come to be considered successful. Projects of a
similar scale are delivered successfully by the IT industry on a regular basis. 

The benefits of changing the way government services are delivered are illustrated by changes the financial services industry has introduced over the past 20 years: online banking, real-time insurance quotes and mortgages over the phone. These have established new levels of customer service and raised expectations for the quality of public services.

Indeed, such improvements have been realised, and possibly taken for granted - new passport applications processed in four days, car tax without having to visit a Post Office, and Land Registry searches done in days.

Over-simplification

Too often, large-scale changes in technology have failed to deliver the improvements envisaged because of an over-simplification of the required changes, unrealistic delivery expectations and failures in project management.

Not enough consideration is given to the impact of new technology on employees and members of the public. IT-enabled business change projects require, where applicable, consultation with citizens, preparation for staff, analysis of the impact on service deployment and pre-emptive action to deal with any expected increases in demand.

Overcoming cultural barriers and silo mentalities in the public sector will therefore be critical. IT has often worked in isolation from the business and other back-office functions. If the nature of change is to be understood, IT needs to work collaboratively in and across organisations to support more integrated solutions that address the increasingly joined-up nature of government.

Moreover, contractual agreements need to be negotiated on the basis of partnership between the customer and supplier and should avoid terms that distort the market, stifle innovation, burden the supplier with unrealistic levels of risk and inadequately reward the supplier for success.

Making such changes in government presents special challenges - doing in years what industry has taken decades to achieve and having an obligation to serve 100% of the market.

So the shortcomings of so-called "IT projects" often have more to do with changing the working practices of hundreds of thousands of public servants and 55 million citizens than making the computers work, and that is no small challenge.

John Higgins is director general of IT trade association Intellect

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