Good progress

May 6, 2012

It has recently been down to UK Member of Parliament Michael Dugher to try and determine the state of the G-Cloud and Greening Government IT Strategy. In an a list of questions and (sort of) answers published in Hansard that will have amused journalists by their vacuity, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude effectively responds by saying that all will be revealed in the near future in the annual reports. I do know that the Green IT Strategy was in preparation when I was last in conference with the Green Development Unit in March 2012, but the bigger wait is for the ICT Strategy annual report itself.

The major revelation from the questioning was that, at a cost of £4.93 Million the G-Cloud is expected to save an estimated £340 million, which is amazing! I wonder if this saving includes that from the Public Sector Network (PSN) or is it purely from the cloud? Over what period will that saving be made – five years, ten years, twenty years? However when Mr Dugher asked Mr Maude about the number of data centres government maintained in May 2010, March 2011, September 2011 and March 2012, all Mr Maude could say was that “In February 2012, Cabinet Office collected baseline information on the number of data centres maintained by Departments in order to progress commitments to consolidate and rationalise data centres to help save energy and costs in line with Government ICT Strategy. This information will be published alongside ICT Strategy annual update report, due shortly. Information on the number of data centres across Government prior to this February 2012 is not available.” However, back in May 2011 some figures were provided by Cabinet Office to the Public Administration Committee dated 30 March 2011 in a written answer stating “A survey commissioned by CIO Council during June 2010 identified 220 Data Centres across Central Government”, which I suspect was an underestimate since I clearly remember someone, possibly Andrew Stott, quoting a figure nearer 400 to the Local CIO Council a couple of  years ago.

When Michael Dugher asks the Minister for the Cabinet Office what progress he has made on the implementation of G-Cloud computing, the response is a resounding “The G-Cloud programme is making good progress”. I’m sure you’ll all be pleased to know…

Molten cloud

March 20, 2012

An early warning regarding over-zealous ‘cloud’ adoption appears in a paper by Bryan Ford entitled “Icebergs in the Clouds: the Other Risks of Cloud Computing“. This may be appropriate with the current approach to the Public Sector Network (PSN) and others as a ‘network-of networks’ which is where the review strikes hardest.

In the rush for adoption, and I am one of those supporting it, we must not forget that there is a massive level of complexity when layering, linking or otherwise baking up virtual servers, with load and power balancing being in the hands of software. Whilst there are real cost savings to be made in this approach, I would argue that at least some of those savings are spent in adding the ‘piece of string’ to the ‘belt and braces’ that straight forward risk management will have taken.

This should not be seen as risk aversion but making allowances and recognising the necessarily complex systems we are building and allowing, to some extent, to manage themselves.

Austere academia

January 6, 2012

I somehow missed this publication being released in 2011 but fell over it when looking for something else! ‘Innovating out of Austerity in Local Government: A SWOT analysis’ is by Patrick Dunleavy, Paul Rainford & Jane Tinkler of the London School of Economics Public Policy Group and despite its inherent self-referencing, even of unpublished sources (Hasn’t anybody outside of the LSE written anything appropriate? – I’m sure they have), it is worth generating a discussion around.

The report starts off with the obvious but not often practiced wisdom that “Introducing changes in delivery-level public services critically depends on consulting with services users and achieving a deep understanding of citizens’ needs and expectations: a strategy of more intensive ‘customer engagement’that has already borne fruit in many different localities and NHS provider areas.” The document then goes on to confirm that innovation involves circumventing central government permissions and gaining buy-in from the professions. It is what it states, a SWOT analysis of what has been going on, although personally I feel that a number of these are assumptions by outsiders based upon limited experience rather than actual facts e.g. one local government weakness is identified as ‘weaker ICTs record in general’, whilst, as has been confirmed to me by several senior central government persons is the situation with central government, rather than local government! The paper does accept (p.6) that UK central government is “probably the most intrusive national government across Western Europe”.

Much is made of the Kent Gateway project which is a good example but had the blessing not only of a dynamic Chief Executive but similar political leadership. They were also lucky in gaining the involvement of the regional NHS, which isn’t the case in all areas. On page 7 there is some acclamation that “Despite the valiant efforts of SOCITM (sic)* and many thousands of staff working in council IT departments, the provision of online local government services remains at best patchy”. However, this fails to acknowledge that local government ICT departments provide e-services for many, many service units, whilst in central government this is likely to be a few related to that Department’s rather focused services e.g. driver licensing, taxation, etc. This criticism is unfairly grounded, presumably due to a lack of understanding. Similarly the statement on page 8 that “where most UK local authorities are currently lagging badly behind the next wave of important ICTs”, is unspecific in only picking on ebooks in libraries, which is hardly a ‘killer application’ when many library users are probably more concerned with real books and the use of free Internet access, rather than those who can buy such items as Kindles, Kobos and iPads.

I will agree, as stated on page 9, that “within local authorities themselves, complaints processes are often un-systematized, with little data being collected, no data publicly published and councils having little information available that would show whether they were doing a good job in terms of not generating complaints or in responding effectively to complaints received”, which is why I had developed the model I have for improving service delivery and suggested some applications to assist, which is all available on this blog. I also suggested to various people at the Government Data Service launch that this was the best way of handling feedback.

Unfortunately I don’t agree with the authors that citizens are put off complaining to councillors (page 9) about operational issues, since it is frequently one sure way of getting some sort of result, and would be interested in the authors’ evidence for this.

On page 19 the authors do accept that the ongoing disturbance to the NHS is impacting on innovation, which will probably become clearer as central government attempts to further transfer care responsibilities to local government.  The contradictions and imbalances within the NHS have already been identified in the struggle to get the Public Sector Network (PSN) off the ground. Attempts to make big savings, along with innovations, will require much improved cooperation across the public sector.

Whilst the conclusions of the paper would appear to be the authors’ expectations there needs to be a realization that in local government all things are not equal. Amongst the range of local authorities resistance to change, which is the major obstacle, comes from a variety of sources that are not consistent across councils. Sometimes its the Chief Executive, sometimes the Director of Finance (holder of the purse strings) or even the IT Director – it could be any one of the various services that blocks change, but this is normally different in every case. It is therefore difficult to make bold statements about how, where or when innovation will or should occur since it requires a combination of auspicious circumstance. In the best examples this is probably a bold Chief Executive, with political support.

As CIO’s/IT Managers are under increasing pressure to make savings, along with service managers it is difficult for all parties to find time to innovate with reduced staffing. If it were a single application (as per the aforementioned central government instance) this insight might be possible but when it requires multiple services to test, be trained and culture change on to a new way of working there will be foxholes of resistance all along the route. These will need multiple strong minds from the top to the bottom to successfully trace a path of successful innovation.

In fact, I wonder how the LSE’s IT service copes with innovation? If, like a number of university IT services that I’m aware of, they are treated with some disdain by their academic colleagues, academia will be just as austere in its approach to innovation as government!

* The conventional branding for the Society of Information Technology Management is ‘Socitm’

Model network

August 23, 2011

A white paper is available from mlltelecom, through their sponsorship of the Guardian government computing feature. The paper is entitled ‘Building Security and Cost Savings into Shared Networks for Local Government – Transformational Network Models‘.

The most surprising thing about the paper is that I nowhere saw mention of the Public Sector Network (PSN). Since recent days have seen the joining up of networks at Kent, Hampshire and elsewhere under the banner of PSN, I am most surprised. The paper itself talks sense about the value to be gained from unifying networks but nothing different to what has been discussed at the various meetings I have attended regarding PSN. In fact the Guardian web site of 22 August goes so far as to day that PSN has reached the tipping point.

Yes, the public sector does have to look to newer technologies to ensure security on the networks to be shared, but that is obviously being done, and acknowledging a national network makes it even better and easier to get standards accepted, if longer to get them agreed.

E-government dependencies

September 20, 2009

Computer Weekly of the 15th September 2009 includes a piece by Ian Grant on Dr David Osimo’s presentation to the European Network and Information Security Agency summer school under the title “E-government success depends on external expertise”

Coincidentally, Dr David Osimo is a managing partner at tech4i2, a consultancy founded by my friend Professor Paul Foley, formerly of De Montfort University which examines a range of practical issues around electronic government, so I was interested to read it.  Especially as I was attending a meeting with members of the Local CIO Council at Sunningdale on the subject Public Sector Network (PSN) at the time.

Osimo points out that ICT has not fundamentally changed government in Europe with 50% of services fully interactive and only 9.3%  of citizens using them. The answer to which he sees as Web 2.o solutions being delivered by people outside of government, my favourite of his examples being Patient Opinion.

He then goes on to propose a model for Tao government, with which I have no arguments but rather than being anything “techie”, this is a change to democracy and government as we’ve known it and, without a revolution, I don’t see it becoming much more than a facade that citizens will soon tire of.