It's usually around this time in the electoral cycle that the political parties begin to consider what to include in their next manifesto. Will IT be hissed at yet again as the tabloid's favourite pantomime villain (aiding and abetting criminals, terrorists and corporation tax-avoiding IT fat cats), or cheered on as the glittering hero (providing us with better public services)?
Since at least the early 1990s, there's been a cross-party consensus that technology will improve our public services. After the 1994 launch of the "open.gov.uk" online services portal, the Conservative government believed that IT would help "provide better and more efficient services to businesses and to citizens, improve the efficiency and openness of government administration, and secure substantial cost savings for the taxpayer".
In the late 1990s Tony Blair's new Labour promised to use IT to "make sure that public service users, not providers, are the focus, by matching services more closely to people's lives" and to "deliver public services that are high quality and efficient." And in 2009 Gordon Brown hoped that IT would "allow us to give citizens what they now demand: public services responsive to their needs and driven by them. It provides us with the means to deliver public services in a way that maintains their quality but brings down their cost."
Despite these ambitions to reforge the public sector, little significant progress was made. Effective use of IT was repeatedly thwarted by turning nearly every project into one of procurement instead of reform: massive, multi-year contracts were handed to a select handful of large suppliers with no incentive to deliver the required transformation. Government IT acquired the credibility of a pantomime cow, squandering billions of pounds in the process.
Since 2010, the coalition government has continued the same vision of using IT to improve our public services, but is working hard to break the previous cycle of failure. Poorly managed projects, inadequate internal skills and monolithic IT outsourcing are being challenged. An injection of IT leadership, skills and expertise is supporting the civil service in driving change and bringing a new focus on delivering what users' need, supported by specialist SMEs previously locked out by the "oligopoly" of big suppliers.
The National Audit Office has identified encouraging early signs of progress, including reductions in waste, but significant digital transformation of our public services has barely begun. A long, winding road lies ahead: it's far too early to shout "It's behind you!" regarding the long era of stagnation and waste – better ways of working remain the exception, and the right talent in short supply.
These current initiatives require careful nurturing and dogged perseverance. As the parties develop their manifestos over the next year or so it's important that they commit themselves to seeing through the current programme of reform. If political resolve weakens now, Whitehall and its use of IT will relapse into the expensive headline failures of the past, badly damaging yet again much needed improvements to our public services – and leaving IT once again being miscast as an expensive and irrelevant pantomime villain.