This week I attended a roundtable event at the House of Commons, hosted by communications specialist Level 3 and sponsored by Alun Michael MP.
Michael is a former cabinet minister, who chairs the Parliamentary Information Technology Forum. He is a no-nonsense sort of fellow and the sort of spiel that IT industry, both in-house and on the supplier side, likes to converse in cuts no ice with him.
We were there to discuss the adoption of the public sector network of networks, or Public Service Network (PSN) as it’s officially known, and Micheal had some useful perspectives on this ambitious plan.
He prefers to take the citizen voters’ point of view on public services innovations, as any MP might because it is them their constituents are going to complain to if any technology overhaul causes local services to go to blazes.
PSN is a complex undertaking that even Level 3’s own research indicates is poorly understood by IT folk, let alone the layman public.
A survey just published by the company found 50 per cent of 101 public sector IT decision-makers either didn’t know anything about the initiative or were not convinced of its benefits.
These metrics indicate that even IT staff are apprehensive about the change PSN is going to expose them to and if they are worried, what does that say about non-technical, even technophobic civil servants and citizens?
Large IT projects like PSN need the buy-in from those expected to deploy them and from those expected to use them to work. This is the case whether they are public or private sector (the distinction is beginning to lose its worth anyway).
As Michael said, large IT projects need to be sat on the desk of the CEO. There is a tendency to leave them to the techies and that way lies madness.
IT systems are too embedded in governmental and corporate processes to be thought of by any employees as nothing to do with them them.
We discussed the issue of security, which is a big part of PSN’s acceptance, when information with a range of levels of sensitivity is being transported on one network as an illustration of this embedded nature.
Non-technical users have to be aware of security issues and behave accordingly, making their own decisions about the sensitivity of the information they are dealing with.
That can’t work without a high level of buy-in irrespective of whether the ultimate financier is the shareholder or the taxpayer and it’s something that CIOs across the board are going to have to deal with.
As a manager, it’s your job to communicate the value of what you and your department does to others in the organisation effectively.
This means talking to them about your IT strategy in terms of what they themselves are going to get out of it and how they will relate to it.
You will need to understand for the level of hostility to change your IT projects may provoke and prepare the people involved for the ways it is going to change the corporate dynamics that have little to do with the actual technology deployment.
For instance, the real value of PSN isn’t standardised communications technology, it’s the ability for government bodies to work more closely together to improve public services.
That means they have to share data and no one likes to do that, because it means giving away a level of control and unique value to the organisation.
Michael used an anecdote from his past to illustrate how this could be overcome. A project he worked on in the justice system involved a number of local authority groups and the police sharing data.
They found that crime hotspots were much more concentrated than they first thought and this enabled them to pin-point their individual activities much more effectively than their own data on its own.
Using real examples like this to explain the benefits to users involved in new IT projects will help them understand what’s in it for them to participate.
There are a couple of early adopters in the PSN arena, such as Mark Colman at the Welsh Assembly and Jeff Wallbank at Kent County Council (both attended the round table event), which although small-scale can provide some lessons on how to get users on board.
Other governmental agencies will find their experiences useful, but any CIO who is embarking on a large-scale IT project will probably do so too.
At the same time, any commercial sector CIOs who have already undergone large-scale projects and have some experience at communicating the benefits to get buy-in from sceptical CEOs, peer business line heads, operational staff and customers will doubtless be welcomed with open arms by their public sector counterparts.
I think we can all benefit by that sort of information sharing.