What a difference a few months can make. May’s general election has left in its wake an energetic new direction for public-sector IT, hardly a big surprise given the Conservative and Lib Dem criticisms of government IT during their years of opposition.
IT-related projects and suppliers that fail to deliver better public services at lower cost are in for a rough ride, with an IT moratorium, project reviews and contract renegotiations already well underway.
Not that I think such a spring clean will be easy. We all recognise the challenge of wrestling the beast of Whitehall IT and its supply base into some semblance of order. Pinning down ‘IT-related expenditure’ is itself a complex task given the many ways in which such expenditure is accounted for.
But there are also important strategic issues to address alongside the current review. I often think too much is made of supposed differences between the public and private sectors. Many public-sector requirements are the same as those you’d find in any large organisation, so I expect to see a move away from the costly model of procuring bespoke versions of commodity services in the mistaken belief that public-sector requirements are unique.
Much of what government requires from IT is a utility, with the best value often provided by firms delivering such services repeatedly and at scale. A drive to restore a competitive supply-side market will help push prices down and service levels up – a trend that smart use of new business models around cloud services will help accelerate.
More challenging are those requirements not easily fulfilled by standard commodity services. This is where smaller players could play a more significant role, helping to meet Vince Cable’s objective of opening up public-sector procurement to UK SMEs able to address niche organisational requirements.
So alongside the IT audit, I expect to see a smarter, more agile and cost-effective approach to public sector IT emerge.
The impact of the election on public-sector IT will be felt for many years to come. As Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell said: “Necessity is going to be the mother and father of innovation, there is no other way.”
All of which provides the perfect opportunity for public-sector CIOs to contribute real, lasting improvements to our public services – the reason, after all, why many of them signed up in the first place.
About the author
Jerry Fishenden is a director of the Centre for Technology Policy Research and a visiting senior fellow at the LSE