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IfG: Too early to claim success on government ICT

The Government should not yet declare success with its ICT strategy, according to the Institute for Government. System Upgrade? the Institute’s review of the government’s progress in delivering its ICT strategy says that despite some significant progress, there remain areas where ‘government stumbles’.

Traditional approaches to ICT in government won’t work
The government’s ICT strategy, published one year ago, focused on many of the right things. As recommended in the Institute’s 2011 report System Error, the strategy commits to embedding a more ‘agile’ approach to running ICT projects, which should reduce failure in government ICT projects by involving users throughout the development process and delivering tangible results quickly.

The benefits of this more flexible approach to projects are that projects are broken down to manageable chunks that can be revised or cancelled without major financial consequences. Such an approach would make it easier for civil servants to respond to ministers’ priorities and customer feedback on usability.

However the Institute has found that the bulk of ICT projects appear still to be run in traditional ways, rather than embracing these ‘agile’ techniques. Civil servants interviewed for the review felt that agile was ‘far from becoming the default for ICT-enabled change projects’ and that it had received ‘far less focus’.

Despite some progress, the Government’s target of having 50% of projects using agile techniques by April 2013 will be extremely difficult to achieve if this continues, the review says.

‘Until agile approaches become the norm, we are likely to see further examples of major government IT projects that experience vast cost overruns and produce solutions that are out of date by the time they are delivered.’

System Upgrade? also confirmed some of the progress cited in government’s own update report which was published last month including: wider adoption of the new Public Service Network (PSN) framework; the creation of a new ‘CloudStore’; and innovative Government Digital Service projects.

Efficiency gains – £159.6m predicted savings are encouraging but too early to confirm
Much of the government’s plan for ICT focused on reducing costs first and foremost. The government’s ICT strategy aims to reduce cost by standardising basic ICT commodity services across government and focuses on improving communication between different government agencies through greater use of common standards and open source development.

The research highlighted several examples of real efficiency gains even in the first year of the strategy’s implementation. The Government itself claims savings of £159.6 million – though only time will tell if these savings are fully realised.

ICT more advanced in our private lives, say civil servants
But the focus on cost savings must not come above a ensuring public servants have the technology they need to do their jobs as effectively as possible. Some civil servants felt frustrated that the ICT they use in their private lives seems to be far more advanced than the tools available to them at work, according to the report. There are already examples of employees circumventing the ICT that government provides them as they attempt to perform their job more effectively.

Civil service leaders need to recognise that ICT can help public servants work more efficiently and effectively and that it is not simply a cost to be managed down.

There are other difficulties that need to be overcome urgently if the strategy is to be a success:
  • The Government still lacks the information it needs to judge whether use of ICT across government is improving. What next? The Government needs to publish reliable and comparable data on the cost-effectiveness of ICT in different government departments.
  • The ICT strategy has yet to be embraced by civil service leaders outside the ICT profession. What next? Senior civil servants across departments must support the ICT strategy – for example running projects and procurement processes differently. ICT leaders need to be proactive in communicating what they are trying to achieve and departmental leaders need to be far more interested in and demanding of their ICT professionals.
  • CIOs are unsure whether the skills and resources exist in government to deliver the strategy. What next? Departments will need to attract high quality staff and ensure civil servants are allowed time to support ICT strategy implementation. Worryingly, none of the ICT leaders surveyed as part of this research felt that they would be appropriately recognised for their work to support the Government’s ICT strategy.
The Institute warns the government against declaring victory in delivering the strategy too soon and makes a number of recommendations that will support success.

Sir Ian Magee, Institute for Government Senior Fellow and co-author, said:
“There has been progress but government is only slowly changing the way it runs IT projects. ‘Big bang’ projects which try to define what’s needed upfront and unveil solutions years later end up costing more and too often produce results that are outdated by the time they are delivered. Government should demonstrate its commitment to a better way of doing things by truly embracing new ‘agile’ practices in a number of upcoming medium-sized projects. This will require new ways of working not just in the ICT profession but among government procurement, policy and operational managers.”

Tom Gash, Institute for Government Programme Director and co-author, said:
“One of the biggest difficulties right now is that government can’t track how effectively different departments are using ICT. There is an urgent need for the Government to publish good quality data that allows people inside and outside government to compare departmental performance so that good practice can be identified, replicated and rewarded.”

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