by Mike Altendorf

We all need David Cameron’s govt to have one source of truth

Sep 22, 2010
GovernmentIT LeadershipIT Strategy

It’s hardly surprising, given the political and economic climate, that the government’s CISx plans have been scrapped. But, considering the current government’s obsession with being progressive these days, this is rather the opposite.

I am not one for getting political, but in this instance I think the current government has missed a huge opportunity to show how innovative and progressive it could be.

The CISx database was never going to be a vote-winner in the short term – you just have to whisper the word database to set the Daily Mail off on rants about security and government spending – but, longer term, the government will be able to make considerable savings on department running costs and bring most citizens quickly round to the initiative.

Being able to provide your personal details once and have that information shared across multiple departments means a lot less time filling in forms and that’s got to be a clear vote-winner.

Admittedly, it only takes a brief look back at recent stories on major government IT projects to see that, no matter who is in charge, the government hasn’t always covered itself in glory. There is no denying that things haven’t always gone to plan. But, there are a lot of government projects that have.

When you consider how many people check themselves in to their doctors’ surgeries electronically or complete their tax returns online, you realise that actually technology has already made a big difference to the way we interact with both central and local government. If you asked most people ten years ago whether they would be happy to post their tax information online, I am pretty sure you would have got a resounding no but these days 6.5 million people do this every year.

In the private sector the idea of a single source of truth is pretty much a given these days, but traditionally, but that’s only after a significant investment in IT infrastructure – both in time and resources. There’s no question of the resulting benefits, but it’s understandable that the government might have baulked at embarking on something so significant now. But this is where I come back to the point about being progressive.

Cloud computing is something that many companies are considering, to tackle exactly the same issue that currently faces the government: How do you provide a single source of data that is secure, manageable and scalable, but at the same time reduces costs?

I am not saying the cloud is the answer to all IT problems but I do think in this instance the government really missed a trick. Cloud is still in its infancy so, as with any new technology there are risks, but by embracing a cloud-based solution to information-sharing the government would have shown itself to be truly progressive, innovative and for a change cost effective.

Enough soapboxing – as many a wise man has said, it is what it is. I have no doubt that at some point in the future, the issue of the single source of truth will raise its head once again and, with any luck we will have a government in place that is brave enough to take it on. But right now, we are still faced with the issue of data duplication, multiple systems containing out of date or conflicting information and a population that really doesn’t want to have to sit in front of yet another civil servant spelling their surnames.

So what to do? Well, all is not necessarily lost.

Part of the problem has always been the lack of communication between government departments and this can be at least partially addressed by the kind of corporate social media tools employed by the likes of the FT and the British Medical Journal.

The FT runs various platforms to create individual community platforms for subscribers to its range of financially focused publications. Within each community there are closed groups which require members to fulfil certain criteria.

You can see such a structure working well across government departments. BMJ uses the same technology to build up a global community of doctors who can ask questions of their peers, share experiences and support each other.

Those with access to certain sensitive information would be able to communicate in closed and secure forums which would both help ensure data held across departments is accurate and build better relationships across different areas of government.

I suspect that the Daily Mail won’t like this idea very much – there will be the usual stories about leaks and computers being left on trains but the fact is the benefits to us – the taxpayer – from government departments being able to share information more freely far outweigh the risks.

To bring this right up to date I can’t think of a better illustration of the danger of inaccurate, siloed and out of date data than the HMRC debacle. Millions of us will be getting letters between now and Xmas telling us we either paid too much tax or too little. So confused is the data that I know of one man who this week received two letters from said department on the same day – one stating he owed them over a £1000 and another saying they owed him nearly £1500.

I suspect even our Daily Mail technophobes would prefer data being stored on the internet than a demand from the tax man.