Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 quote that “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror” seems tailor-made for IT. Far too many programmes replicate how things were done in the past, rather than how they should be done now.

This partly explains why inefficient and fragmentary business processes and systems continue to operate in the public sector even though faster, better and cheaper alternatives exist. Many of the most essential systems – such as those relating to welfare and taxation – also need to be built to adapt quickly and cheaply to meet changing political and socio-economic demands.

The 2010 report Better for Less set out many of the ideas now influencing the reform of government IT. It envisaged services that are “specified as inter-replaceable cassettes of work, to enable easy/regular market testing/swapping of suppliers as routine”. These ‘cassettes’ facilitate a competitive marketplace of commodity components that government can move freely between – an interoperable open ecosystem.

As Tim O’Reilly has observed, “…Government can forestall the risk of single-player dominance by throwing its weight behind open standards and interoperability in cloud computing”. Doing so is a significant transition from procuring against detailed monolithic specifications fixed at an arbitrary moment in time, to open-ended platforms designed to support changing policy needs. In place of complicated bespoke systems that lack appropriate flexibility it’s a move to simple systems that work – systems that can be extended, revised and improved.

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But this is about far more than departments using more productive services at a fraction of today’s costs. It’s also about redesigning legislative-based systems around user needs, bringing to an end the era of brittle and expensive vertically-integrated systems, over-specified and underused infrastructure, unmanaged costs and claims of ‘uniqueness’.

Making this happen will require the public sector CIO role to change – from big supplier procurement and relationship management to innovators, change agents, brokers, negotiators and service managers relentlessly focused on user needs. These very different, entrepreneurial skills extend well beyond IT into rethinking business processes.

The result is a very different CIO function – a hybrid of business-led, user-focused IT, digital service integration and change management. A role whose focus is no longer on that hypnotic rear-view mirror but on the reality of the road ahead.

Jerry Fishenden - A drive for transparency in government IT must not be resisted