Critically acclaimed

August 2, 2011

The latest critique of government computing is hot off the press (27 July 2011), coming a day before the PASC report on Government and IT (28 July 2011). The report from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) is entitled “System reset – transforming public services through IT“, an 864Kb PDF. Much of the comment is similar to that which has been talked about at the Public Accounts Committee and Public Administration Committee and possibly every other similar report this century.

My favourites from the top ten –

Number 1 – customers should specify the outcome!

Number 2 – agree what to measure at the start and do it

Number 4 – standardise…

Number 5 – let staff design and get their buy-in

Number 8 – “More consideration  should be given to isolating IT projects from political and organizational change.”

Number 10 – “Don’t let security paranoia hinder effective working” –

All so true and so well-known, and all cultural!

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PASC reporting

July 31, 2011

Having posted on what I thought was the Public Administration Select Committee report under Measure the Outcomes and their publication of ‘Public Accounts Committee – Fortieth Report: Information and Communications Technology in government‘, (which was as it says the Public Accounts Committee), more recently on the 12 July saw the Twelfth Report ‘Government and It – “A recipe for Rip-Offs”: Time for a New Approach‘ and this is the one I actually provided evidence for (being the Public Administration Select Committee)! For all that, there’s not much difference between these reports and any other probably produced in the past dozen years.

There are complaints about the “oligopoly” of suppliers, which I can’t disagree with, but this has been brought about not by the IT but the market created by the legislative body itself. Drafting complex legislation that is then expected to be delivered electronically is a dark art creating a limited field of suppliers, that gets smaller as the suppliers eat each other.

The recommendation for replacing legacy systems demonstrates the limited experience of the committee and its advisors. I’d like to know how many banks and building societies are still running ancient mainframe applications with sweet front-ends pretending to be MS Windows ones, there are quite a few I know of. Without Parliament generating the opportunity for complete rewrites of the archaic rules and regulations they expect civil government to operate under, this won’t happen. I recently berated one major government supplier for their pretend wizzo application that was in fact an old Unix-based one with some smarter screens – it’s requirement for shed-loads of computer power and the dreadfully archaic control of printing gave it all away.

Perhaps a key recommendation is number 13 – “Government should ensure that the IT implications of new initiatives are properly considered near the start of the policy process on a par with the legal and financial considerations. This should simply be an extension of thinking about how the policy will be implemented in practice. We recommend that analysis of these issues be included in all policy submissions to Ministers”.   Hear-hear! That should save a few train-wrecks of application development!

Similarly recommendation 31 – “It is self-evident that the people using systems, be they frontline officials or members of the public are best placed to provide suggestions on how to improve them. User feedback should be directly integrated into the design of new systems and the development of existing systems and processes to ensure continuous improvement. We recommend that Departments exploit the internet and other channels to enable users to provide direct online feedback both in the design of services and in their ongoing operation and improvement.” This again something that local government has started to do, but is as much a cultural change throughout the organization, as a technical one. It was also the main conclusion of my academic research.

Importantly, in this age of outsourcing, offshoring and partnerships, is the 33rd and final recommendation that “Government will need to address issues of liability for the external delivery of Government services. Moving to a model where third parties provide online Government services will require clarity about where citizens should turn for help when they encounter difficulties, as well as clarifying who is accountable for service delivery.” Let us hoped this warning is observered.


Measure the outcomes

July 15, 2011

The 22 June 2011 saw the publication of ‘Public Accounts Committee – Fortieth Report: Information and Communications Technology in government‘. The report is the result of the various examinations that were blogged upon earlier this year  including What more? PASC , More evidence to PASC , Presenting the evidence . My own evidence was published under ‘Avoiding past mistakes’.

I am pleased to say that the report concludes and recommends  amongst other things that “The [Government ICT] Strategy lacks a baseline or metrics to measure progress. Simply listing actions to be achieved within two years is not sufficient”. It also recognises that “approximately nine million people have never used the Internet, and they must not be excluded”.

Whether the report succeeds in changing the historic approach to ICT in government is yet to be seen, but it’s a start.


Government ICT Strategy

April 3, 2011

At long last, it’s here, they got it out just before the end of March, all 25 pages! As Francis Maude stated at the PASC, it is lapidary; employing some single long words when a much shorter one might do. Have a dictionary to hand!

The promise of ‘assisted digital services’ in section 45, fits in with my own, long argued, one of mediated service delivery. It may be interesting to see who will comprise the “network of ‘assisted digital’ service providers, such as Post Offices, UK online centres and other local service providers”, when many such places have closed or are on their way, due to the cuts?

Paragraph 47 is similarly intriguing when it states “the Government is committed to providing 21st-century identity assurance methods and is engaging with the private sector on this”, this is presumably a replacement for the DWP-managed Government Gateway?

Paragraph 49 also makes some big promises when stating “the Government will use technology to break down barriers and engage with citizens and businesses, bringing innovation to the way in which policy is formulated and delivered”.

The document ignores local delivery of service (of which local government is estimated to provide around 70%) with the exception of the diagram on page 25, the last one, where local government appears ‘beyond the pale’, which I hope isn’t the sentiment. If they can introduce paragraph 12 ” Government will ensure that technology requirements are considered earlier in the policy-making process”, this might finally stop the reoccurrence of those issues around ‘new conditionality‘ that have been discussed here before, and has expanded services so well.

There is a dependency within the document upon a number of other strategies awaiting publication, including the green one, one on capabilities and a Cloud Computing Strategy. Although the Public Sector Network appears to be a given, if a private sector one. How the government PSN will align with the local government ones being delivered and planned remains to be seen?

There is also a lot of talk of Skunkworks, which with its capital ‘S’, I thought was a registered trade mark? However, there still remain the siloed government departments that will have to be dragged into the new ways of delivering services.

As usual, a good in parts document, ignoring some important stuff that needs considering whilst stating in a few words matters that will require major cultural and technical upheaval. At least it was a short read!


More evidence to PASC

March 27, 2011

There is a further session of the House of Commons PASC hearing from Tuesday 22 March at 10.33am available for viewing, following the one reported earlier. On this occasion those appearing are :

  1. Mark Adams-Wright, Chief Information Officer, Suffolk County Council, David Wilde, Chief Information Officer, Westminster City Council, and Martin Ferguson, Head of Policy, Society of Information Technology Management
  2. Joe Harley, Director General and Chief Information Officer, and Malcolm Whitehouse, Group Applications Director, Department for Work and Pensions, Phil Pavitt, Director General and Chief Information Officer, and Mark Holden, Director Programmes and Projects IMS, HMRC

Unfortunately the video recording is missing the first ten minutes of the session, when Martin Ferguson covered a lot of ground about how we do things well in local public services. This will appear shortly in the transcript.

In addition, Martin admits when asked,  that local government has not been directly involved in the new government ICT strategy, although the local CIO Council was invited by the then Government CIO, John Suffolk, to prepare its own approach, which we are doing as was highlighted recently.

The interviews provide some idea of what is going on at Suffolk and Westminster councils in IT and service delivery terms, whilst a final message from David Wilde “Don’t look to IT to make government work better, it won’t. It can enable it”, strengthens the approach being taken in the routemap being drawn up.


Avoiding past mistakes

December 30, 2010

In a very recent post I mentioned that the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) had launched an inquiry on the 17th December, into the way in which government develops and implements technology policy ! The PASC has issued a call for written evidence!

Whilst I’ll be submitting evidence through the LCIO Council and Socitm, I’ve also drafted my own comments –

1. How well is technology policy co-ordinated across Government?

Historically, technology policy has been poorly coordinated across central government , with minimal consultation or involvement with local government. This had started to change over recent years with the Cabinet Office CIO successfully establishing communication between central and local government and a number of partners. The traditionally limited number of private sector partners involved had constrained government to expensive solutions that had limited ability to adapt in a quickly changing world, unlike the variety of options available to local government, – that was until the recent tendency for suppliers to start monopolising in that market, too. The relatively quick work in considering the Public Sector Network from a joint local-central view is an excellent example of what can be achieved, and the absence of a number of departments from these discussions should be highlighted and brought under some central control.

2. How effective are its governance arrangements?

Are there any governance arrangements? Each government department appears to do its own thing, which causes further confusion when these multiple approaches have to interface with local government – which traditionally has the majority of regular contacts with the majority of citizens. Any governance arrangements need to be considered from the view of the citizen and worked backwards, before being considered back-to-front.

3. Have past lessons from NAO and OGC reviews about unsuccessful IT programmes been learnt and applied?

It would appear not – are post implementation reviews ever carried out?

4. How well is IT used in the design, delivery and improvement of public services?

Public services should be designed and improved in cooperation with the users (citizens). Only then should ICT be considered as a method of delivery.

5. What role should IT play in a ‘post-bureaucratic age’?

PBA is political dogma. If this means returning to the likes of New Public Management and similar failed three-letter-acronyms, it should be kept well away from technology policy!

6. What skills does Government have and what are those it must develop in order to acquire IT capability?

Government has all the necessary intelligence. It needs to assist those with potential , to rise above the bureaucracy and develop and apply the necessary skills.

7. How well do current procurement policies and practices work?

In a complex manner, permitting largely only those major organizations with adequate resources to take part.

8. What infrastructure, data or other assets does government need to own, or to control directly, in order to make effective use of IT?

One Public Sector Network (PSN) of networks with access to a sufficient choice of data storage and provision to reduce costs and duplication for the whole of the public sector but assuring savings for all those partaking.

9. How will public sector IT adapt to the new ‘age of austerity’?

As it has done before. By being fed on by the private sector vultures already circling above. It will then have to be rebuilt again in a period when austerity is accepted as just a time of ‘lean thinking’. Perhaps we should examine the learning from Canada following their ‘age of austerity’ a few years ago?

10. How well does Government take advantage of new technological developments and external expertise?

Learning should be done by considering the model of ‘new conditionality’ proposed by Dr Paul Henman, where increasing policy system complexity is developed because it is technically possible, rather than due to the necessity of process. Simpler processes would allow understanding by citizens and policymakers whilst costing less to implement technically. Unless it can facilitate or reduce the costs of the services, or alternatively improve the democratic process, it is not the position of government to take advantage of new technological developments. As to external expertise, consultancy of any sort comes with a cost, which should be evaluated against any potential benefit before committing to it. If it’s just an opinion being sought, this should be achieved on a pro-bono basis where additional assistance may be forthcoming, dependent upon the quality of the initial expertise.

11. How appropriate is the Government’s existing approach to information security, information assurance and privacy?

It needs to balance the civil and the military without letting one control the other as it appears to do now under CESG’s control

12. How well does the UK compare to other countries with regard to government procurement and application of IT systems?

I’m not aware that any country, other than the likes of Singapore, has managed this well – on that model some central control of the implementation might be an idea?


Learning government

December 28, 2010

Philip Virgo’s excellent blog post in Computer Weekly of 21 December 2010 about how to suitably design the new Universal Credit system deserves reading by all who might influence the process of delivering such a service.

Whilst many of the of the comments should be injected into the PASC call for written evidence, Philip’s penultimate paragraph is suitably ‘systems thinking’  – “To really help those trying to help better themselves, we require systems that assume chaos and unpredictability. That will entail giving front-line staff responsibility for holistic support and the ability and authority to over-ride the “system”.”

A suitable ‘New Year’s revolution’ in government thinking…