By Tony Collins
Joe Harley, the government CIO, is much respected inside and outside of government.
Amiable, straight-talking and influential, he could be the Government’s civil service ambassador for change. Like his predecessor John Suffolk he could use conferences and public events to talk inspirationally about the dystopian costs of government IT and what to do about them. He could jolt the complacent into an awareness of their self-deceptions.
Why hasn’t he? If the Government CIO has much to say is not for the public ear. While there has been talk in recent weeks of how five corporations control GovIT, and how it can cost up to £50,000 to change a line of code, Harley has been silent.
Where does the Government CIO stand on the need for major reform of the machinery of government, on the sensible risks that could save billions?
Is the top man in Government IT inspiring his colleagues and officials in other departments to do things differently?
It’s true that Joe Harley has enough to do – perhaps too much – in his “other” day job as CIO and Director General of Corporate IT, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
He is a leader of the programme that is helping to deliver Universal Credit. He chairs the public sector-wide CIO Council; and his trying to do more with a smaller budget will require all the skill and the experience he acquired as global CIO for ICI Paints and before that as BP’s IT Vice President for global applications, hosting and consultancy.
These responsibilities give Harley a chance to point to a new way, to confront unequivocally the costs of GovIT, to lead by example: by replacing gradually the long-term contracts and monolithlic suppliers of old; by listening to SMEs and employing them directly, and in more than a token capacity.
The DWP has recently awarded those suppliers new and conventionally-large, long-term contracts. Headlines in the past two months hint at how the DWP will, for years to come, dance to the tune of its large IT suppliers:
These deals could be seen as a protest against all that Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, stands for.
In March Maude spoke of a need for big contracts to be broken down into “smaller, more flexible projects” which would “open up the market to SMEs and new providers”. Maude wants to end the oligopoly of big GovIT suppliers – but does he have an influence at the DWP?
Nobody is suggesting that Harley shows a hard fist at the negotiating table. But he should assert himself sufficiently in public to make us believe that his appointment as Government CIO was more than the filling of a vacuum.
He doesn’t need to lead by radiating charisma; but can you inspire from the shadows? Billions is spent unnecessarily each year on not changing the government administration. So it’s time Harley advocated change. He could be a standing reproach to the myth that senior civil servants do all in their power to obstruct change.
Deposing the muscular monoliths in the supplier community will require a consuming interest in innovation, courage (risk-taking) and a passion to cut costs. Harley has many strengths and qualities. Surely these are among them. But if they’re not manifest soon, some in government will wonder if the Government CIO has gone missing.