This general election could be the first in which information technology becomes an issue with voters. True, it's not up there with the economy, the NHS and bankers' bonuses but IT is now so integral to the delivery of government services that it is already surfacing as a point of contention between the main political parties.
Labour has made great play of its success in delivering more services through e-government. The Conservatives claim that many large government IT projects have been over-budget and delivered poor value, while the Liberal Democrats are concerned about the privacy of people's personal data held on public systems.
So which of these key dividing lines will be most important to CIOs? CIO asked for answers from three MPs: Labour's
Andrew Miller, chairman of the Parliamentary Information Technology Committee (Pitcom), the Conservatives' Ian Taylor, vice-chairman of Pitcom, and the Liberal Democrats' Lynne Featherstone, chair of the LibDems' Technology Advisory Board.
Government IT projects
The past decade has been littered with the debris of government IT projects which went way over budget and/or failed to meet their objectives. In January, the government unveiled a new ICT strategy, the outcome of a detailed review of management of IT in the public sector by John Suffolk, the government's CIO.
The aim of the strategy is to create a framework in which public authorities can pursue IT plans to meet their own business objectives through the use of a "standardised, flexible and efficient ICT infrastructure". The strategy sets out to achieve this aim by defining a common infrastructure, standards and capabilities.
Having been stung by criticisms of overspending on IT projects, the government's strategy points to future savings. A "single holistic telecommunications infrastructure" for government could save £500m by 2014. A government cloud (or G-Cloud) "that enables public bodies to select and host ICT services from a secure, resilient and cost-effective environment" could enable savings of £3.2bn. Rationalising datacentres could add £500m of savings and a government application store, encouraging re-use of apps across departments, a further £500m.
These are impressively round numbers but there is little detail in the strategy report about how they would be achieved and the history of public-sector IT suggests that savings are formidably difficult to find.
Labour's Miller says: "The real problem in getting the best value for money for the taxpayer is that, traditionally, government has been a silo-based organisation. Breaking down the silos is the real challenge. That, in turn, raises some interesting benefits that could emerge from cloud computing and so on."
The Conservative Party has launched a policy paper called Delivering Change which promises big changes in how they would run government IT if they win the election. The paper sets out eight "practical steps" which the Tories would adopt in managing government IT. They include seeking to limit the size of individual IT projects to £100m and opening policy-making to crowdsourcing and collaborative design.
The policy includes a commitment to look for more open-source solutions and to ensure that those responsible for managing major IT projects - the "senior responsible owners" (SROs) - stay in their jobs during the lifetime of a project. Yet Francis Maude, the Conservatives' shadow Cabinet Office minister, has said that these aims are only "expectations" rather than firm commitments.
The Conservatives' Taylor says: "Whether the aims of the policy are realistic depends on what issues the next government is presented with. But there will be a presumption of breaking down projects and decentralisation."
Lynne Featherstone brings the Liberal Democrats' traditional suspicion of bureaucracy to government IT. "We don't believe in big top-down, someone-in-Whitehall-knows-best approaches to policy making - or IT," she says.
"That means instead having smaller, step-by-step projects with open data standards and, where possible, open source code - or, at the very least, code the public sector can re-use and have others work on in the future. It also means encouraging less duplication - just think how many departments and councils have developed their own systems to do the same thing - and instead more sharing of code and mutual improvement of it."
There has been genuine progress in e-government during the last parliament. The 2009 e-government national awards highlighted some of the successes in areas as diverse as social inclusion, customer contact and waste management. But there have also been highly publicised failures such as in 2008 when HM Revenue & Customs had to extend the deadline for filing online tax returns after its website crashed. So what next?
Labour's Miller says that e-government should be used to help citizens deal more efficiently with the state in the case of 'life events' such as births and deaths.
"One example is dealing with the death of a loved one," he explains. "When we studied this, we found a person might have to contact up to 27 different government agencies to do things such as cancelling a driving licence. It's a much more civilised approach if you only have to contact the government once and let the information feed through the system."
The Conservatives' Taylor points out that e-government is only valuable when the user thinks there is something in it for them. "They can see advantage in not having to fill in another e-form online. But they need to have confidence that they're in charge of their data - not somebody else," he says.
Featherstone says the Liberal Democrats' approach to e-government can be summed up by two words - openness and standards.
"Make data available openly and in common standards and it ends up being re-used and analysed in all sorts of unexpected ways," she says. "Although there have been some welcome moves so far, particularly thanks to Tim Berners-Lee, there is still much to be done, ranging from axing the ludicrous restrictions around putting Parliamentary footage on YouTube through to ending the old-style publishing farce of the Budget, where huge tomes get suddenly published at the flick of a switch in unhelpful formats that are better suited to burying inconvenient information than communicating in a modern manner."
With high-profile losses of government data - such as two CDs containing records of 25 million child benefit claimants that went missing in the post - data security is an issue on which the parties are likely to focus. This is particularly important because people's suspicion about the security of data will determine how enthusiastic they are about adopting e-government.
Labour's Miller says it's unfortunate the government has found itself debating data security in the context of terrorism. "Had it been done in a calmer environment and in the context of presenting benefits to the public, I think we would have found ourselves in a different situation," he says. The government's new ICT plans include a "national information assurance strategy" which aims to "allow public bodies to match their information risk appetite with their information risk exposure".
The Conservatives' Delivering Change paper notes that a key problem is that responsibility for data security is spread around different departments. A Tory government would tackle this problem by nominating a single civil servant responsible for data security.
Taylor says that no company or public department should operate a system which allows the accidental dispersal of data, for example, by downloading it onto a USB key. That would also, presumably, preclude sending CDs through the post or leaving files security-unprotected on laptops which are taken out of the office. Taylor suggests that systems should automatically provide an alert to a relevant manager if data is being downloaded in an unusual context.
"I think you've got to increase the penalties on companies and public departments for data breaches," says Taylor. "We must scrap the immunity of public servants from prosecution. But education is the key and, if penalties follow, they should be clear and material."
Featherstone adds: "The fundamental problem is that things will go wrong and people will misbehave. The bigger the data-set and the more people who are meant to use it, the higher the risks. Keeping data in as small and discrete sets as is compatible with other objectives means problems are far less likely to arise."
The government's ICT strategy paper pointed out that, across the world, computer use emits comparable levels of CO2 to aviation. It set two targets for government ICT - to be carbon neutral by 2012 and carbon neutral across its lifecycle - which takes in the disposal of old equipment - by 2020.
Miller suggests that meeting ambitious targets like these may mean rethinking the procurement process. He believes buying equipment from a wider range of providers, including smaller specialist companies, could enable government IT to take advantage of greener technologies developed by smaller firms. "We need to give government departments incentives to think green. There has to be a competitive approach in government departments to the green agenda," he adds.
Taylor suggests that using IT to avoid the creation of carbon - such as through more videoconferencing - is a fruitful area for government to explore. He adds: "Teleworking hasn't really taken off although flexible working has. Many people could work more from home." He also argues that a new government should look more closely at how it can increase energy efficiency in IT projects.
The LibDems' Featherstone says: "We should be very careful about government getting into micro-managing behaviour. Instead, what government can do is to ensure people have good information - such as with effective labelling systems for IT equipment - and set the broad policy goals, such as making Britain carbon neutral. Within that, firms should have the freedom to choose the best way to adapt and government should use its considerable purchasing power to encourage them along the way where necessary."
IT and the NHS
Polls consistently show that the health service is a top issue with voters at elections, so it's possible that the long-running saga of the NHS Connecting for Health IT project could surface as a contentious issue during the campaign.
The government has been plagued by trouble over the project which has seen its costs soar towards £13bn. Last December, Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling suggested the project may not be immune to cuts, but its future remains unclear as the election approaches.
The Conservatives' Delivering Change promises a "transformational redesign" of the project to give patients more control over their medical records. It says they will redefine the project's scope "so that the focus of any ICT deployment is on improving patient care and increasing the productivity of our NHS from the bottom up, not the top-down". It adds: "We have made it clear in our response to the independent review of NHS IT that where appropriate we will localise Labour's central IT infrastructure so that NHS Trusts and GP commissioners can have a choice of interoperable IT systems which they can tailor to the needs of their local patients."
Featherstone argues: "We need a more localised approach to IT rather than trying to impose centralised nationwide applications. That requires rather less starry-eyed optimism about how just one more round of big IT projects will revolutionise the NHS and instead a bottom-up approach based on agreeing common standards and having a range of suppliers providing smaller products which fit together."
The future of broadband
In July 2009, the government's Digital Britain white paper made a range of proposals for increasing universal access to broadband across the UK. The government proposed paying for the roll-out of 2Mbps broadband for every home through a 50 pence-a-month levy on each telephone line. The levy would raise around £175m a year.
But in February, the House of Commons business select committee said that while the policy aim of fast universal broadband was "laudable", the proposed levy was "regressive". It warned: "Early government intervention runs a significant risk of distorting the market and will not allow time for technological solutions to extend the market's reach across the country."
Miller believes the government has done well to protect the principle of universal broadband. "We can see benefits in investing in broadband so that people can work away from their normal base and thus take pressure off the transport system."
Taylor, who declares an interest as a non-executive director of a satellite broadband company, argues that proposals for universal broadband should be technology-neutral. It's unrealistic to extend cable to the remotest rural dwellings, he says, where satellite or mobile may provide a more cost-effective solution.
Featherstone argues: "The free market has consistently been good at spreading new technologies, but only so far - and time after time, right from the days of the Penny Post, special measures have been needed to ensure rural areas get full coverage too. All the evidence so far is that high-speed broadband is the same and so, as long as there are appropriate exemptions from the proposed 50p per month levy on bills to pay for fast broadband roll-out, then that is a welcome move."
IT doesn't feature as a headline issue in any of the parties' manifestos, yet there is a growing realisation among politicians of all parties that IT is central to delivering policy promises in areas as diverse as healthcare and carbon reduction. But investing in more IT won't be easy in the austerity economy which emerges from the wreckage of the recession. Whichever party wins the election will be faced with tough decisions.