There has long been a call for “joined-up” government and public services but you’re more likely to read about failures in such systems than successes. So it’s good to report on a positive outcome in the shape of the Youth Justice Board (YJB), the non-departmental public body that oversees youth justice in England and Wales.

The YJB’s Wiring Up Youth Justice programme is a three-year scheme to bring ICT-enabled change and improve information workflow and it comes to a conclusion in spring 2010. The project is being proclaimed a success with spending body The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) describing it in glowing terms and with plenty of applause coming from those involved both in administration and at the sharp end of the youth justice system that spans police, youth offending teams, the Office For Criminal Justice Reform and the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and the National Offender Management Service.

For YJB CIO Mike Mackay, the project has been all about becoming embedded with practitioners – who make up over half of his team on secondments – and building a system that will provide youth offending teams in the community (YOTs), youth courts and young offender institutions (YOIs) with better case management data to make better decisions.

“I asked the governors at the YOIs to tell me their biggest problem in terms of information and they said, ‘there are a few things: we’re not getting information on who people are, where they’re coming from and where they go after they’ve been with us’,” he says.

Mackay’s answer was to take a practical approach, largely using off-the-shelf tools, shared services, and the networks available to the public sector with appropriate permission controls and encryption-based security.

“Now the YOI governors and YOT managers have good, quick access to who is coming in at the gate, can read up on their problems and situations, and then make new information available for people further down the chain,” he says. “What it means practically is that everybody who needs to know has a much better chance of understanding risks, and that translates into reduced possibility of things like self-harming that can be at its peak at a time of new admissions.”

Reviewing his two and a half years at the YJB, Mackay says that the new automated workflow has allowed staff to concentrate on more important tasks and supplies them with data that is both accurate and up to date.

“The big improvement is that there has been a lot of leg-work and admin taken out. There’s not the need to make multiple phone calls, send emails or multiple faxes.

“You get much less rekeying of data because there is a a connected set of facilities that everyone with appropriate permissions can access and that also enables you to have data that is easier to analyse, make sense out of and help you make smarter, faster decisions,” he says.

It’s an impressive change programme, especially for a man who had no direct public-sector experience when he took the job and who has spent much of his career in the energy business.

However, Mackay says that the worlds are not so very different and the idea that the public sector is less efficient is in many ways a myth. “The private sector has been early to exploit technology to compete; it’s the economics of competition, and I learned a lot about that. Where government is good is in exploiting technology to collaborate and cooperate, and government can be every bit as good at cooperation as industry is,” he says, pointing to the example of the DVLA driving licence taking pictures of applicants from Passport Office applications.

“My job is to follow the youth offender’s journey and make information flow across many organisations. That’s not a typical CIO role and there was no IT department here before I arrived but a lot of the challenges are the same. You’re looking for ways to achieve outcomes as quickly as you can without incurring too many risks.

“There are people to manage, organisations to deal with, and appropriate governance wrapped around the whole thing. In many ways it’s a lot more fun because the outcomes are so socially significant.

Also, he says that in many ways the public sector is faster moving, thanks to regular changes of ministers, ministries, legislation and government, and he believes that many public-sector levers are working very well. For example, he defends the role of the OGC as a procurement best-practice hub.

“We get great value from the OGC,” he says. “It provides me with frameworks and provides us with the lion’s share of procurement thinking. Could I get slightly better rates? Probably, but framework contracts are already there and it saves us time, it’s a great shared service; I couldn’t have moved as quickly without them. And we take advantage of many other government shared services, from local authorities, from the Home Office and from the MoJ  standing on the shoulders of giants, so to speak, and we’re only spending money where there is a gap to fill.”

The crypto factor

Mackay’s need to connect tens of thousands of practitioners in more than 200 organisations led him to seek an efficient system at low cost and with fast setup and excellent security. That led him to a solution based on cryptographic security technology.

The system uses AEP Networks’ crypto boxes at multiple locations and a model of permissions-based security protocols with data flowing through a hub that links to the Government Secure Intranet.

“Obviously you’re dealing with hugely sensitive information and you have to be extremely careful in carrying out that responsibility but modern cryptography lets you connect all those different networks using existing national infrastructure at very low cost, without neglecting that responsibility,” says Mackay.

“This technology got us started quickly, cheaply, securely. Next year we’ll move over to the new Government Connect shared service as that become available.”

Where possible, Mackay says he tries to use standards-based technology with a minimum of modifications. He is also a supporter of open source.

“I think [open source] is great and for an organisation that has to watch its costs, it’s very important. The idea of a community sharing knowledge is much closer to an academic ideal than what the proprietary industry has come up with. The attitude of the open source community is build it, share it and then everybody reaps the benefits,” he says.

Bad press

Mackay attracted some unwelcome headlines when the Daily Mail wrote a piece suggesting he was typical of quango executives on fat salaries. Mackay says the remuneration figures cited by the paper included flights, recruitment agency fees and other expenses. Understandably upset, he adds, “The number quoted is not the number that’s paid to me. The story that works for me is value and this programme has been hugely successful.”

The next steps are clear for Mackay: finish the current programme and extend it, if backers are willing, to bridge to other, related services such as adult justice and case management systems, and add digital support for curfews and tagging.

“Over the next six months we want to conclude the Wiring Up Youth Justice project,” he says. “We’re on target financially and on deliverables, and we’re something like 20 per cent above target for benefits. In May there was a stakeholder consulting session and they’re staying ‘don’t stop now’.

“Going forward, I’m working to convince the powers that be to turn a short-term programme capability into a long-term capability and make the team a durable team for the national benefit.

“We’ve joined up youth justice but it’s like taking the screw-cap off a lemonade bottle... it fizzes up; it’s like we’ve just released the appetite for more and more information sharing. People see what it means now and know they can get it cheaply and fast. We’ve built a business change IT capability for youth justice and now we want to take an ad hoc, pro tem team and create a platform for a more permanent vehicle.”

Peak practice

Mackay, a keen mountaineer, sees great value in adopting what he calls an “Alpine-style” approach, joining up small pieces and working closely with those who are involved day-to-day with the thorny issues of youth justice, rather than creating another application in the manner of the “Himalayan” strategies adopted by many. If he gets the backing, he says he would welcome the chance to stay in the government sector and build on what has already been achieved. “The opportunity is huge, the appetite is huge,” he says. “I’d like to do that again. It’s good work.”

The likes of the Daily Mail might not like it but Mackay is one of a number of CIOs that won their spurs in the battle for supremacy in the private sector and he is bringing enterprise-class change-management skills to an area where every programme can have a very real effect in building better lives – and indeed saving them. It would be a crying shame were people like him to be bullied by the media out of making real, technology-enabled change happen where it is most needed.