The year 2012 is likely to be a defining 12 months, a test of how well the public sector can harness IT to provide better public services at lower cost, and of how well the move to becoming natively digital-by-default will transform the way in which our public services are designed and delivered.

There is a tendency to start in the wrong place by asking the misplaced question: How can I use IT to automate this process?

Yet the question that needs asking is another one entirely: How can IT enable us to fundamentally redesign and improve this public service?

While IT will continue to embrace process automation and improved operational efficiencies, its far more significant contribution lies in enabling us to rethink the way public services are designed and operated from the outside in.

After all, the reality is that many inherited, existing processes don’t need automating in the internet age – they need scrapping.

Another significant obstacle is that the incumbent supplier ecosystem may lack the necessary expertise to enable the public sector to successfully execute the required transformation.

A recognition of just such a mismatch is helping to drive the exploration of alternative service delivery models such as cloud computing.

Leading CIOs will spend 2012 working to challenge and overcome complacent and outdated thinking, conducting robust evaluations of underlying service requirements and the many cost-effective alternatives that now exist to meet them.

All too often organisations with expensive, complicated and dysfunctional IT turn out to be those where internal process, and not external outcomes, has become their misplaced raison d’etre, rather like Charles Dickens’ Circumlocution Office.

This supremacy of internal needs and process above everything else is both an indulgence and an abdication of responsibility, where the process itself can conveniently be held accountable for poor outcomes rather than those responsible.

To be clear, this is not a rant about process per se, but about misplaced focus, poor process and poor execution: about when the process becomes its own self-serving objective rather than that of improving public services.

Those organisations that will succeed in 2012 and beyond are those who focus first on the needs of citizens and improved service outcomes, not internal process.

And those wise enough to have invested in creative CIOs working not as traditional IT managers focused on tin but as board-savvy change agents, enabling our public services to become truly digital by default.