By Tony Collins
There is much to commend the 102-page Government’s ICT Strategy – Strategic Implementation Plan”. Its chief assets are the touches of realism.
In the past Cabinet Office documents have referred to the billions that can be cut from the annual government IT spend of £15bn-£20bn. This document is different.
In promising a saving of just £460m – and not until 2014/15 – Cabinet Office officials are not being ambitious, but neither are they making impossibly unrealistic claims. [The press release refers to £1.4bn of savings but there’s no mention of that figure in the document itself.]
The Implementation Plan also points out that the oft-quoted annual government IT spend of £16bn-£17bn is not spending in central government IT alone but includes the wider public sector: local government, devolved administrations and the NHS. The Implementation Plan concedes that there is “no definitive or audited record of ICT spending in central government for 2009/10”, but it adds, “the best estimates suggest this to be around £6.5bn in central government…”
Now at last we have a figure for the cost of central government IT. But we’re also told that the Cabinet Office has no control or strong influence over most of the ICT-related spending in the public sector. The document says:
“Though implementation is not mandatory outside central government, Government will work with the wider public sector to identify and exploit further opportunities for savings through greater innovation, and sharing and re-use of solutions and services.”
That said the document has some laudable objectives for reducing ICT spending in central government. Some examples:
– 50% of central departments’ new ICT spending will be on public cloud computing services – by December 2015. [Note the word “new”. Most departmental IT spending is on old IT: support, maintenance and renewal of existing contracts.]
– First annual timetable and plans from central government departments detailing how they will shift to public cloud computing services – by December 2011.
– Cost of data centres reduced by 35% from 2011 baseline – by October 2016. [What is the baseline, how will the objective be measured, audited and reported?]
It is a pity the document to a large extent separates IT from the rest of government. If simplification and innovation is to be pervasive and long-lasting senior officials need to look first at ways-of-working and plan new IT in parallel with changes in working practices, or let the IT plans follow planned changes.
Not that this is a black-and-white rule. Universal Credit is an essentially IT-led change in working practices. The technology will cost hundreds of millions to develop – an up-front cost – but the simplification in benefit systems and payment regimes could save billions.
Another problem with the Implementation Plan is that it is in essence a public relations document. It is written for public consumption. It has little in common with a pragmatic set of instructions by a private sector board to line managers. Too much of the Cabinet Office’s Implementation Plan is given over to what has been achieved, such as the boast that “an informal consultation to crowd source feedback on Open Standards has taken place…” [who cares?] and much of the document is given over to what the civil service does best: the arty production of linked geometric shapes that present existing and future plans in an ostensibly professional and difficult-to-digest way.
And many of the targets in the Implementation Plan parody the civil service’s archetypal response to political initiatives; the Plan promises more documents and more targets. These are two of the many documents promised:
“Publication of cross-government information strategy principles – December 2011” …
“First draft of reference architecture published – December 2011.”
Platitudes abound: “Both goals are underpinned by the need to ensure that government maintains and builds the trust of citizens to assure them that the integrity and security of data will be appropriately safeguarded.”
There is also a lack of openness on the progress or otherwise of major projects. There is no mention in the Implementation Plan of the promise made by the Conservatives in opposition to publish “Gateway review” reports.
More is needed on specific measures to be taken by the Cabinet Office when departmental officials resist major reform. The promise below is an example of what is particularly welcome because it amounts to a Cabinet Office threat to withhold funding for non-compliant projects and programmes.
“Projects that have not demonstrated use of the Asset and Services Knowledgebase before proposing new spend will be declined.
“Departments, in order to obtain spend approval, will need to move to adopt mandatory common ICT infrastructure solutions and standards, and spending applications will be assessed for their synergy with the Strategy.”
But these threats stand out as unusually unambiguous. In much of the Implementation Plan the Cabinet Office is in danger of sounding and acting like PITO, the now-disbanded central police IT organisation that had good intentions but could not get autonomous police forces to do its will.
Unless Cabinet Office officials take on more power and control of largely autonomous departments – and overcome the uncertainties over who would take responsibility if all goes wrong – the Implementation Plan could turn out to be another government document that states good intentions and not the means to carry them through.
It’s as if the Cabinet Office has told departmental officials to drive at a maximum speed of 50mph when on official business to cut fuel costs. Will anyone take notice unless the speed limit is monitored? It’s the policing, monitoring and open objective reporting of the Implementation Plan’s intentions that will count.
Otherwise who cares about nameless officials making 100 pages of boasts and promises, even if the proof-reading is impressive and the diagrams look good if you don’t try to follow their meaning?