Nick Pickles was the Conservative candidate for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford at the 2010 General Election. Having worked in the IT industry, he now sits on the executive of the Conservative Technology Forum, and is involved in an number of Digital Government issues.
Today's Public Administration Select Committee report into government IT would, in many situations, be described as a 'wake up call'. Unfortunately, so many such alarms have sounded in recent years that one may be tempted to conclude there are parts of Whitehall who have long since lost the will – or ability – to wake up to the myriad range of problems government IT faces.
While the Coalition has made laudable first steps, there are clearly a number of areas of concern and the report is a succinct and focused effort to round up the disparate topics of discussion into a clear, actionable review. This is by no means something for ‘tech’ people – the report and its concerns go to the heart of delivering public services over the coming decades, not to mention saving the taxpayer billions and ensuring the lights stay on.
On the whole, the report has found nothing new – all the issues covered have had a good airing in separate forums – but this should not detract from its importance. In an age of public sector reform, failing to make full use of technology is both nonsensical and retrograde – Britain's future lies as a digital knowledge economy, and a public sector built on piles of paper and creaking databases operating long beyond their expected life only undermines that ambition.
Whether the strategic decision to "lock in the legacy" and simply take an ostrich-like approach to ageing systems that often underpin a wide range of services – but are hugely costly to maintain and highly delicate to develop – is right or not (and I would argue the latter) we cannot afford for debate about IT to be left on the fringes of the policy debate. Moreso, we cannot afford to delay.
As part of the transparency agenda, it Is entirely reasonable for the government to publish more on how much IT systems cost to run – as Governments around the world come to terms with cloud computing and 'pay as you go' services, this kind of data – and a proper procurement system – should both drive down cost and broaden the supplier base.
Indeed, the question of widening the supplier base is another area where the PASC report has recognised the long-standing questions around how the UK awards the majority of its contracts to a small cluster of providers. This has been exacerbated by a tendency in Whitehall towards large, all-encompassing projects. The resulting procurement process has often blocked innovation, increased risk and cost the taxpayer billions. Only a very brave person would claim it has succeeded.
Many in the SME community have questioned the backgrounds of senior figures in the Cabinet Office's efficiency and reform group – reading like a who's who of bungled Government projects, it hardly inspires confidence that the group will take forward very serious recommendations around SME innovation. One can only hope none of them turn up on the board of big IT contractors in years to come.
Mastering IT and technology-enabled change is in my view the biggest single area of potential for the Government to transform public services beyond recognition, and deliver massive savings. The report’s conclusion is a neatly succinct summary of where we are today – and what must be done if we are to avoid the costly failures of the previous Government – not to mention how a truly transformative reform agenda can be delivered:
“Numerous challenges remain and fundamentally transforming how Government uses IT will require departments to engage more directly with innovative firms, to integrate technology into policy-making and reform how they develop their systems. The fundamental requirement is that Government needs the right skills, knowledge and capacity in-house to deliver these changes. Without the ability to engage with IT suppliers as an intelligent customer – able to secure the most efficient deal and benchmark its costs – and to understand the role technology can play in the delivery of public services, Government is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.”