Saturday, November 12, 2005

Transformational Government

The opportunity for scoop on this paper, published recently by the Cabinet Office, has long since passed. The Idealgovernment folks, for instance, have been posting regularly, even garnering Jim Murphy the CO Minister on their list of authors. Mike Cross has also taken a look, worrying about the vendor side of the deal. Mike is a shrewd operator and will be worrying about more than that I suspect - and has probably been looking at drafts of this strategy as long as I have. I spent five years at e-Envoy, now eGU or even OCIO if you prefer, so have more than a few views on this document. It would be easy, perhaps, to be bitter and twisted about the whole thing, but it would hardly be productive. So overall, I think praise is in order - for now - for getting together CIOs from across government and having them endorse a cohesive articulation of what their jobs should be over the next 5 years. Previous strategy documents have come from the centre and been inflicted on the departments. This one has the feel of one that has been worked and reworked across government - with the commitment from senior civil service and ministerial level plain. That gives it a headstart over previous strategies, but it doesn't make it deliverable (to use an apparently over-used word, per Mike Cross). There aren't any new words here: - Citizen centred ambitions have been around a long time (the first UKonline, launched around a series of life events, showed up in 2001). The original vision of the e-government effort was that we would join up government at the front end, masking the wide mix of disparate services below the "scum line" (anyone who saw me present from 2001 onwards will remember that description), whilst buying time to re-engineer the backend systems and business processes to create real change. Indeed, gets a one line mention in the strategy, but it's not entirely clear if the action plan is going to centre on driving greater use of that. Is that too sensitive a topic? - Shared services likewise (the government gateway is the pioneer of that, dotp a second wedge, and there were at least 1/2 a dozen attempts at joining up finance or HR systems in my time). Oddly, the fact that the gateway or dotp exist and could be leveraged isn't mentioned. On second thoughts, perhaps that isn't odd before. - Taking £1.4 billion away from departments - via, I assume, some kind of top slice process - is an idea that was put up 10 times (I have the notes to the Chief Secretary) but was never seen as viable. Has it changed now? It's a very big deal if it has and I'd applaud the CO if they've managed it. Caution will need to be exercised from here on - I can see a whole lot of excuses for why things haven't been delivered elsewhere landing on their doorstep from here on. - The problem before has never been a lack of strategy but a lack of will to "do" - to execute, to make things happen, to change the way things were done in the past. My worries then are: - The plan, it says, is to provide "technology leadership". We know that won't be enough. The technology, whilst challenging and fraught with difficult issues, can be put in place relatively quickly - but harnessing all of the requirements and needs of individual departments (centrally and locally) will be two orders of magnitude harder. Where is the equivalent business leadership coming from? - How is the commercial leverage going to come about? Vendors will follow the money, they have to, it's how they get returns. If there's a choice between a department that is waiting 3 years for a central system versus one that wants to get moving right now, which one is the vendor going to put time and resource against? - Is this a forward plan or a backward plan? That is, does the plan say that from now on, all things will be done this way and any new projects started have to conform, or is it going to reach back into projects that are already underway or have long since been completed and say "thanks very much for doing that, but it's no longer relevant - you'll have to adopt this thing over here". If the former, then the timeframe is probably optimistic - change will not be irreversible by 2011; if the latter, than there's a chance to do it sooner, albeit with more pain. Remember, many departments have been operating their main back end systems since 1981 and all those who want SAP or Peoplesoft will have put it in by now, or be saying that they can't wait 2-5 years for a central system. - The vision says that "government is enabled by technology - policy is inspired by it". Something in the pit of my stomach turns when I hear this. I can see a bright, young policy wonk creating something that turns on the presence of 3g phone networks in everyone's hand. I say this as the guy who came up with the strapline for his team, in mid 2001, of "Delivering the technology to transform government" - I believed it then and I believe it now. But I don't see it happening yet. - There's almost a throwaway remark about "systems were designed as islands, with their own data". That's true - and it reflects the IT governance practice of the 1980s and early 1990s: every system is a kingdom and whoever is king of that dom gets it the way they want it, without risk of interference from others. Turning that over has been tried in the recent past - with the CIP initiative that was explored by Lord Carter (Patrick Carter at the time). If ID cards are going to reach down into individual systems, that work is going to need a serious going over to get everyone signed up to it and, probably, everything else will need to be put on hold while such a significant change is made to everything. If you think capacity is stretched now, it could be worse. Alternatively, the front end government gateway approach that was proposed could be adopted and it could happen in the background. - Bullet 20 of the vision talks about not just doing "IT better" but doing "IT differently", something which looks to be a redux of the original brief I put into the Mission Critical IT projects brief of using Gate reviews to not just see if "we were doing things right" but if "we were doing the right things". Services that are more joined up and more personalised is an old saw. There's plenty of support for the former and unclear definitions abound for the latter. - I worry about the unsaid "GDP business case" argument. There's much talk about efficiency and about "customer satisfaction not being the only goal" but the real money is not on the inside of government. The Inland Revenue spent £2 billion to collect its £200 billion in tax. I suspect HMRC spends £3 bn to get £300 bn. Neither are ratios that would worry you if you were a business - indeed you'd be at the top of the tree. So if HMRC halves its costs (feasible I think), the ratio goes from outstanding to simply stunning. But if HMRC allows savings of £1000 in costs per year from 3 million small businesses, or £100 from 9 million self assessment tax payers, I'd like to think the numbers would stack up better in pure GDP terms. The tax take may go up a little, but the economy would be goosed with more money. Neither goal is mutually exclusive, but there is little that I can see explicitly about the GDP business case. In 2001, we thought that e-government could be worth, by 2011, 2% on GDP. - The less I say about website consolidation at this point the better. I wish it were only 2,500 websites. I guess that's pure central government ones. There were certainly over 4,000 on the domain name list I saw recently. Dan had a good idea - we need to declare a half life on these things. - I love the idea of Customer Directors and am intrigued about the first candidates being for parents and for small business (what then, I wonder, has the Small Business Service being doing for the last 5 years - and what role does have in this?). I'm intrigued how it's going to work with a minister leading the charge - and how they will steer a cross-government budget across department lines. Such issues over funding, control, risk management, implementation, vendor contracts etc will be faced at every step of the way with this strategy. They are not new issues, but they were never comprehensively dealt with, despite some very fine attempts. Early sight of how this is going to happen will, in my mind, give the strategy enormous credibility both inside government and with those cognescenti from the outside that worry about those sorts of things. - The kind of people that are suggested for taking this forward - customer directors, "customer group teams" and so on are probably pretty rare in government. Finding the right ones with was difficult - but it was done (and done well - 1,500,000 visitors in September can't be wrong after all). Finding them from outside will increase the risk of failure - the antibodies in government will quickly find and exploit their weaknesses. And the last place we should spend the £1.4bn freed up from the budgets is on new people. There's a tricky shift to get right here. - Para 33, part 7, drops in, pretty much from nowhere, that citizens should be able to access and manage the data held about them. This is a version of the "data in the cloud" strategy that has been kicked around before. This could be the single killer app - real time pension forecasting has been a bit of a sleeper hit precisely because it allowed people to see something that was barely, if at all, visible before. It's a huge challenge and has to be accompanied by joining up data identifiers (so a change of address in one replicates across the others) and it's fraught with complexity (not least identity and security), but what a goal to bury 2/3 of the way through a strategy. I have a 101 detailed comments on the text and a pile more questions. If I get time, I plan to send them to the powers that be as formal feedback. Overall though: - Bonus points for pulling it all together; and if you have all the CIOs together as one on this, double bonus points - Well done for getting the PM to endorse it and do a webcast (You might need someone else to do one soon though, at this rate) - The timetable looks crap - nothing happens next year because you're too busy doing that you already promised to do (and the artful departments will suddenly launch a bunch of initiatives next year which get too far down the track to change). But maybe you're being realistic and following the once bitten, twice shy rule. - It all rests on the action plan now. Some specific deliverables and visible items that we can see and touch (and throw sticks and stones at of course). I'm going to be watching this with great interest. It could be a new beginning where lots gets done or one where we're left at the end of the film thinking about how clever they were to position themselves for a sequel.


  1. Anonymous8:41 am

    So does that nett out to say do not expect too much of anything too soon? There is no burning platform to make these public sector folk change their behaviour or methods.

    "Transformational Government" to be filed under "Oxymorons of our Time"

  2. true enough