Just before Christmas, the leak of a draft UK government document (the rather oddly entitled Government ICT Strategy: New world, new challenges, new opportunities) caused an unexpected flurry of excitement. Discussion of the draft report was actively spurred on by the Conservative Party, which quickly established a public website, Make IT Better, to openly solicit feedback, be it good, bad or just downright ugly.

The current economic climate is re-energising policymakers about the role IT could, and should, be playing in the improvement of the UK’s public services. If, that is, the current model of IT governance could only be cajoled away from its lazy modus operandi – a toxic combination of a lacklustre detachment from public services and an inwardly technical, and financially inefficient, obsession with its own self-serving needs.

On closer examination, and despite its cheesy subtitle, the draft government document revealed itself to be nothing like an IT strategy. IT strategies are generally short, er... strategic documents clearly aligned with the business imperatives of their organisation. Instead, the leaked draft dwelt almost exclusively on technically-driven operational issues, well adrift from the wider business of how to reform the UK’s public services in the current dire economic climate.

The draft underlines just how fragmented the UK approach to public-sector IT has become, appearing after a whole host of other IT-related documents, such as the Digital Britain Strategy, the Cyber Security Strategy, the Smarter Government Strategy, Building Britain’s Future, Excellence and Fairness, the Operational Efficiency Programme (OEP), and the recommendations of the Power of Information taskforce, to name just a few.

The ideal strategy

Its appearance and rather bumpy reception raises an important and timely question: what exactly does an ideal government IT strategy look like? While the dotcom boom and bust of the late 1990s and early 2000s enabled the best of the private sector to change course and reposition IT as a key lever of business planning and competitive advantage, Whitehall continued sailing in an altogether different direction, one that retained IT as an administrative adjunct to the business rather than as an integrated lever of public policy.

In his CIO article, Let Business Drive IT Strategy, Chris Potts stated that in the fallout from the dotcom bust, business people “took control of the IT agenda at the big-picture level and focused on two things they understand very well – cost, and business innovation”. That may have been true in the best of the private sector. However, insulated from such real-world pressures, neither of these important developments happened in Whitehall.

Public-sector IT expenditure has risen well above inflation over the last decade, yet seen a decline in public-sector productivity. Innovation is nowhere to be seen, squashed out of existence by the control exerted over public-sector IT by a few, all-powerful suppliers. Worse, despite the large sums expended on IT, it is hard to discern any improvement in the cost efficiency of the IT estate, or the quality, performance and productivity of the UK’s public services.

At the end of November, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) criticised the performance of HMRC, with £11.2bn tax potentially lost as a consequence of failing to modernise some of its IT systems. This is head-scratchingly difficult to comprehend. HMRC has only one reason for its existence: the swift, just and efficient collection of taxes. The primary focus for its IT staff is therefore optimising those systems that help achieve this core business purpose.

But a government report as long ago as 1999 had identified problems with many back-end systems in Whitehall departments, including those with systems that were already some 20 years old. “In the Inland Revenue for example, 18 mainframes are used for Self-Assessment and 12 mainframes for PAYE,” read one section.

Based on the recent PAC report, it seems that this situation is little improved some 10 years later. So where precisely has the IT management focus and expenditure been during the intervening period if not on helping secure the department’s core business?

Part of the reason for such localised failures is the lack of a government IT strategy. There is no clear vision for technology’s role in the design and operation of a 21st century liberal democratic state. Whitehall IT runs largely autonomously, a mystical, jargon-bound priesthood that operates as an “expensive wart on the side of the departments and agencies”, as one former Permanent Secretary described it during a Chatham House Rule session.

Far from saving money and improving our public services, the current approach to public-sector IT involves additional cost and complexity with no discernible benefit. Cynical insiders like to joke over their pints in Whitehall’s Red Lion that the “e” in “e-government” stands for “expensive” rather than “electronic”.

If this lack of strategic vision and leadership is going to be fixed, the UK’s policymakers need to take direct control of the IT agenda and bring it into the fold of mainstream policymaking. For Whitehall policymakers and the technical priesthood to connect effectively, a public-sector IT strategy needs to be policy-driven and easy for senior civil servants and ministers to understand. It should set out clear technology policy objectives and principles that are integrated with the mainstream of decision-making and business planning. It should not exist as a separate verbose document weighed down with fashionable technologies of the moment, debated and delivered in isolation from pressing issues of public policy.

Principle concerns

An holistic IT strategy should be underpinned by clear principles such as citizen need, transparency, open standards, and a properly functioning free market on the IT supply side. From these strategic principles, the more detailed operational plans of each department and agency can be developed. It is these more detailed plans that will specify how the overall strategy will be delivered, at what cost, over what time period and with a clear explanation of how and why. And they will also address both who will be accountable and who will be responsible.

The development of such an IT strategy will require a policy-led governance model, one that ensures better coordination across not only the current priesthood (the CIO and CTO councils and related technically-driven internal functions) but also the wide diversity of departments and agencies who all claim ownership of parts of the technology policy landscape (from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, to the Office of Government Commerce and Ofcom) and their alignment with the strategic direction of public policy. The National Audit Office, PAC and appropriate Parliamentary Select Committees should all help ensure that Permanent Secretaries and other senior departmental officials are held to account for delivery against this strategy. This is, after all, about improving our public services, not about IT in isolation.

Once Whitehall executes these changes, it will find itself able to match the best of the private sector. It will assert policy control over the IT agenda at the big-picture level and hence be able to focus on two principal outcomes: value and public-service innovation. These changes, adeptly designed and proficiently executed, will in turn help to ensure that a proper UK government IT strategy does indeed “make it better”. For all of us.