CIOs in central government are heading for a major shake-up if policy kites seen flying high above Fleet Street are to be believed.
A recent report in The Times outlines how the Conservatives, should they form the next government, will replace permanent secretaries as the chairs of Whitehall boards with ministers. The management boards themselves will also be shaken up, with the appointment of more non--executive board members from the private -sector and extra powers to dismiss permanent secretaries.

Senior civil servants will be put on fixed-term contracts, with the salaries of the most senior 35,000 civil servants openly published.

So what could this mean for central government CIOs? Very few Whitehall CIOs currently sit on the management boards of their departments and, as a result, few if any have a significant impact on Whitehall's business vision, plans and strategies. So in theory, these proposed changes would have little impact on Whitehall CIOs, enabling them to carry on much as before, precisely because they don't generally operate at board level.

That, however, would be a missed opportunity. Despite their ‘CIO' titles and lofty salaries (often running well above those of equivalent colleagues in the private sector), most of the current incumbents are more akin to old-style IT managers, focused on lowly technical issues (thin client or thick client; new datacentre or cloud) or reminiscing about the heyday of ICL rather than how to help reinvent the public sector and its services through an innovative partnership with technology.

And in that reality may lie the answer. The present generation of Whitehall CIOs could largely be reverted to the true role, title and function (and salary) of those old-style IT managers. In practice, that would mean little short-term change for them in their responsibilities since that is effectively their role anyway.

Where the real change will come is within the new boards and the change in culture they could help drive across Whitehall. These newly reconstituted departmental boards will have the opportunity to bring in a generation of experienced and business-savvy CIOs to work as an integral part of the management team, helping to address the pressing need to rethink our 21st-century public services.

While the newly repositioned ‘IT managers' can then get on with the important routine of daily, lights-on operations, driving for better operational efficiency and turning the screws on existing contracts and suppliers, the new CIOs can work with their ministers, boards and citizens to help reinvent the UK's public services, enabling their colleagues to understand how technology should no longer be just an operational and administration tool, but a lever of policymaking itself. They will help to drive a complete rethink in the way public services are designed, starting with the citizen rather than the department and be cognisant of the idea that, in the future, government departments will be their websites. This is indeed a potential revolution in the making, not an evolution.

Yet such radical changes are essential if the UK is to modernise and survive. We live in nearly unprecedented economic times and the public sector needs to find smart ways of trimming budgets, driving out costs and delivering better public services. Compare that with the typically crude and naive tactical approach apparently already taking place in Whitehall, whereby Whitehall departments are being told to show how they can make savings that add up to 40 per cent of their IT budgets. As a result, some departments are apparently preparing to bin almost all their IT programmes and 15 per cent of staff costs on top. This is about as enlightened an approach as re-imposing the window tax of the 17th and 18th centuries.

However, what this crude model eloquently demonstrates is the poor standing of IT and the IT profession in Whitehall. It is seen as a bolt-on to the side of normal business, something to be dispensed with under pressure, rather than an embedded part of public services design, operation and delivery. And it also shows how Whitehall has no effective memory and is prepared to repeat its own mistakes and those of other countries when it comes to managing profound public-sector deficits. Mistakes can be forgiven if they are learned from, but not when they become the template for habitual repeat offending.

In a Whitehall with empowered CIOs working on the board with their minister, permanent secretary and other heavy hitters, the debate would not be about cutting IT to drive short-term headlines and soundbites. It would be about how to re-invent public services to be delivered smarter, better, cheaper, and would concern the role of IT in that new approach.

There would be an understanding that cutting an ‘IT programme' (whatever that is) arbitrarily now, just to make an in-year budget cut, when that programme might deliver substantive savings year-in, year-out, and better public services to boot, is not a good decision at all. If nothing else, those currently driving through such short-sighted changes need to be held publicly accountable, and responsible, for their actions.

We will all end up paying a high cost indeed if Whitehall gets this wrong and once again retreats into its shell, bunkering down to preserve current inefficient public services in aspic and sidelining IT as solely an administrative option, rather than understanding that the current economic position offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent public services fundamentally for the digital age and to -enable -better public services at lower cost, centred on the needs of citizens rather than those in Whitehall.

The best CIOs in private and public sectors understand this. They engage with their boards as persuasive equals, often educating them on the reality of what technology does - and does not - make possible. They work with the business to enable IT to transform and improve that organisation and its goods and services. But at present Whitehall largely lacks any such eloquent and credible heavy-hitters and hence any effective influence.

That is why the radical policy kites currently being flown should be encouraged by the IT profession. These potential changes to the civil service offer an opportunity for a revolution in the standing and use of IT in Whitehall. This is the chance to demonstrate and deliver the substantive benefits that a cadre of empowered, appropriately skilled CIOs can bring to a modernised Whitehall and to the UK's public services. So let's ensure that the IT profession is ready to rise to the challenge.

Sometimes a major shake-up is just what is needed. It would be a shame to waste this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

About the author:
Jerry Fishenden has worked in some of the UK's most senior IT positions including Microsoft's chief technology policy and strategy advisor; as head of business systems for the chief financial services regulator in the City of London; as an Officer of the House of Commons, where he pioneered the parliamentary data and video network; and as a director of IT in the NHS.