This week's PSF (Public Sector Forum) newsletter included "A word on Socitm", to which I felt compelled to respond, as below.

Dear Ian

Re: A word on Socitm

I was a bit disappointed with your piece, and would like to add my own words on Socitm and PSF.

Socitm, Socitm, Socitm, what are we going to do with you? While there were some genuinely magic moments to be had at the annual conference in Belfast – Michael Bichard proclaiming the government had failed to reform the civil service and persuade the public data protection safeguards were in place being just one – still something seemed not quite right.

Public Sector Forum

The present Socitm Presidential Team accepts the organisation has to evolve. We are determined not to be defensive about some of the real issues that you've highlighted; we understand that the organisation has to address these issues and we are actively planning the changes we believe are necessary for agreement with our membership. But, I think you have been disingenuous.

I had hoped you would report, and give greater prominence to, your questions to Rose and her answers, which were frank and honest, to paint a more rounded picture of developments in Socitm.

Indeed it was the acidly true-to-form Bichard who argued IT managers were 'punching beneath their weight' and many lacked the skills to perform a strategic role within their local authority (only 30% of IT bosses sit at board level according to him and this probably sounds about right). Moreover he said, the IT profession regularly over-promised and under-delivered.

Public Sector Forum

He did say that, and I agree with him. However 30% of IT bosses at board level is a very considerable improvement on just two years ago. Can we say that our colleagues in other public sector professional bodies, such as CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) and PPMA (The Public Sector People Managers' Association,formerly SOCPO), have a better track record? Have they achieved such improvement in such a short amount of time? I think not. Have these longer-established organisations enabled their professions to change the feudal nature of public sector organisations to deliver joined-up and accessible services for the public? No – they haven't.

The statement about "over promising and under delivering" can, of course, only be a generalisation, and there are an increasing number of our profession to whom that no longer applies. Socitm is about promoting best practice, and our invitations to hard-hitting speakers, like Sir Michael, to speak at our events support that aim. My personal view is that, increasingly, the complaints we hear about IT are not rooted in the IT systems we supply and support, but in the businesses' management, and a fast developing function in the ICT profession is business consultancy and turnaround.

Another excellent speaker – Kent County Council's enigmatic Chief Executive Peter Gilroy – suggested a need among public sector professionals for the integrity to stand up and be counted, to be accepting of criticism and to turn questions raised on their head and use them as opportunities. While speaking at the time about the individual he might as well have been talking about Socitm itself.

Public Sector Forum

The fact that many CEOs, like Peter Gilroy, now understand the strategic importance of ICT and are willing to engage with us is, I think, a credit to the profession and to Socitm. But let's not kid ourselves – who do you think wrote his speech?

Ten to one it was his CIO, which just goes to show what a self-deprecating bunch we are! The fact that we – the profession and the Society – are willing and able to challenge ourselves in this way I consider to be one of our greatest strengths.

The razzle, dazzle and obvious expense lavished on the Belfast event said much about what the Society has become. Without wishing to focus too much on the negative (a genuinely encouraging conversation with current president Rose Crozier and President-Elect Richard Steel suggests a much needed, very welcome wind of change should start blowing through soon) Socitm is, at the moment unquestionably an Establishment outfit when it needs to be... well, something else, though quite what remains to be seen.

Public Sector Forum

I also think your comments about razzle-dazzle are specious. All professional societies have show-case annual conferences. They serve to sell their profession, attract high profile support, boost the confidence of our members, attract sponsors, exert influence and in doing so, air and baseline our agenda for another year.

Right now however an unwarranted arrogance seems to pervade when, as Bichard and Gilroy point out, members have much left to learn and lots more to do before most can genuinely be said to be leading anything. Placing IT managers at the vanguard is a tailor-made role for Socitm but someone described the Society recently as being 'the Provisional Wing of the ODPM (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)' and even in jest this speaks volumes. Treatment of exhibitors at the Conference was a particular case in point and was little short of scandalous. With many cramped into a barely accessible and hard-to-find hall, few if any had a good experience and many said they felt like the poor relations, treated as unwelcome guests lucky to be there at all.

Public Sector Forum

I'd be interested in others' views of whether we are arrogant. That certainly is not what's intended, and we most certainly understand there is lots more to do. However, I believe there is a growing confidence and optimism in our profession, which is undeniably now at the core of any successful business, and it is right that Socitm should celebrate and build upon that confidence.

I understand "someone's" comment about the "provisional wing of the ODPM (now DCLG)". There is a real tension for us in balancing the good working relationships we have with government institutions and our responsibility to challenge unnecessary bureaucracy, duplication, incompetence and waste, where it exists. I am inclined to agree that, at present, we've got the balance wrong, but that's something we aim to address, with the support of our members.

There were some complaints from exhibitors that we worked hard to address. The main concern was from exhibitors who, because of their location, felt they were not getting sufficient passing footfall from delegates as they moved between conference sessions.

Some changes were made to try and address those concerns and the feedback at the end of the event was that most were much happier with the situation. In mounting a conference and exhibition on this scale, there are a great many planning and logistical problems. We try hard to create the right environment for all our Members. (Most suppliers are Socitm members.) We are always keen to receive feedback, and strive to learn from our mistakes. However, to say that exhibitors were "cramped and barely accessible" is a gross exaggeration, as I think you know.

The question needs to be asked therefore - is Socitm there to make money or to help its rank and file? Can it do both without perhaps one compromising the other? Should it consider - as CIPFA has done - splitting itself into two to avoid such a conflict of interest?

Public Sector Forum

Socitm exists to help its rank and file. It cannot do that without money. If the organisation is wrong we can change it, but I don't think CIPFA necessarily has it right (as implied above). As it happens, we used to be split into two, but we thought that was less effective than the corporate structure we opted to adopt two years ago and, arguably, more in keeping with the joined-up agenda that our members' organisations are pursuing.

At highest level the Society needs to do one thing – and to do this thing well. That is to promote the interests of its members. Not the interests of its members' employers, or the government, or anyone else come to that but members themselves. And to do this it needs all the allies, partners and friends it can get, and to choose such friends wisely. It especially needs to be in close touch with the mood and concerns at grassroots. After fifteen successful years, spectacular financial growth and the added fillip of eGov, Socitm has grown somewhat complacent as any similar organisation in its position probably would, and such complacency could be its downfall.

Public Sector Forum

Now there's the rub. Socitm is not only a membership organisation, it is owned by its Members. That's a great strength, but it does limit our ability to make rapid changes – unlike an out and out commercial operation like PSF. The outcomes from "the wind of change" you spoke about will be subject to consultation and approval by our membership.

The job of elected officials, such as the Presidential Team, and our colleagues who work hard in running our regional branches and activity streams, is to advise and represent the membership as best we are able to but, ultimately, it is their organisation, and it reflects their wishes and views.

If Socitm didn't exist you'd need to invent it but it must now re-invent itself to survive. That the conference provided delegates a great networking opportunity and probably a much-needed break is beyond doubt, but it could and should be so much more. Let us hope in the near future it will and its 'issues' get resolved soon.

Public Sector Forum

Ian – we do need friends and allies, and we would like PSF to be among them. However, PSF's Sunday Sport editorial style, which we previously discussed, is among the challenges we face. I would prefer to pursue an objective debate based on the facts, but I'm not sure that suits your goals as a commercial operation that needs to drive readership.

I know that you have pursued some sincere and effective campaigns, and admit to having been really amused at some of your more outrageous pieces – but we simply cannot afford to behave like that. If I want amusement, I might read the Sunday Sport (well, Sun, perhaps!) but if I want the facts and reasoned debate, I'm more likely to turn to the Times. If Socitm is to continue to be taken seriously, we must seen to be objective and dealing with the facts.

Please would you publish this response to your "word about Socitm"? I look forward to a continuing and, hopefully, increasingly effective dialogue but I think we are going to have to acknowledge and respect our difference perspectives.

Best regards,

Richard