Comment: Is the time right for a public sector chief information officer?

25 Jun 2004

It’s interesting to see the continuing momentum away from the talk and hype about e-government that we’ve seen in recent years. The cynic in me is inclined to the view that it must be a sign of improving times and that business in the private sector must be picking up.

And I suppose if, indeed, that is the case the consultants will waste no time in turning their attention away from government, where things are starting to get a little difficult what with increasing talk of “value for money”, “benefits realisation” and even “professional project management”. I suppose the smart ones can predict the shifts in trends and fashions, and are already moving on to the new ‘must have’. I believe web services are now very much the current flavour.

Not that e-government is gone away mind you. It’s just that reality is starting to set in and it is being increasingly seen for what it is — using technology wisely in the process of streamlining the complexities of public administration. All the forms and regulations, all the offices, departments and hatches, the internal toing and froing, and the compliance rules that we citizens have to go through to be good stakeholders in democracy and the democratic process.

The thing about it is that e-government has so far concentrated largely on the point of delivery or the point of service — the part that is visible to most of us. In other words, the bulk of the effort and investment expended has been focused on improving the user experience. And I suppose that can’t be a bad thing either. It was long overdue and has to be welcomed. The arrival of online motor tax renewal is a good example of what can be done to take a lot of the inconvenience out of compliance.

But it is only one aspect of the whole show. There are loads of things that have yet to be tackled. Unfortunately — or maybe it’s just as well — they are not all that visible to the citizen. The evolution of the public service has seen the rise and fall of a number of reforms over the years. Trouble is that many of these, admittedly well intentioned, reforms have left us with a legacy of bureaucracies each with its own identity and mission and many of them operating as though they were dealing with their own unique clients and not as part of a larger process in the State’s engagement with the citizen.

Quite apart from the new challenge, which the planned large-scale relocation of bureaucracies (decentralisation) is going to bring in terms of joining up and creating a shared mission, the application of technology to the bigger question of how the system actually works is a whole new frontier. But I don’t think it may be as simple as putting in a new controlling body to wave the big stick at all the organisations.

True enough, in large multinational corporations the value of thorough exploitation of technology is clearly recognised, perhaps more easily recognisable. But the technology professionals are more and more to be seen inside the general’s tent. But the public sector is different and it has evolved to be much more loosely connected than the large commercial corporations that can become very focused on the basic imperative — making profits.

The public service is a collection of diverse organisations with many cultures and ways of working and with many sets of values. Profit is not an issue. The dilemma is to find the correct way of joining them all up to achieve the level of payback from large-scale investments in technology, not to mention the goal of more integrated government, and to do this without causing damage.

Clearly it will not be possible to simply force organisations to shake off generations of identity. And the very diversity that seems at times to be an obstacle in changing to a more citizen-centric organisation can be good in that the citizen’s experience is not uniform — there are options and possibilities in diversity that can offer an alternative route to the same or similar products and services. Yet there can be no doubt that some things will have to be standardised across the sector if the joined-up system is to run more smoothly. But how can this be achieved?

It seems inescapable that there will have to be some sort of chief information officer (CIO) for the public service, if only to set common standards and strategies to promote a more cohesive approach to the use and acquisition of technologies and architectures. Also, given the nature of the job required, it is absolutely essential that the person involved should be sufficiently potent and supported by the top to be effective. It would not be possible for that person to have an operational role, since the individual agencies themselves are best placed to determine what they need and how to deploy it. But somebody needs to set the context — to determine the strategies that will make the joining up possible and give it the potential for success.

Many ICT suppliers find it difficult to determine whom they should be talking to from a pan-public service perspective. And they tend to find that there isn’t any one person or office with the clout to set the strategies or strategic frameworks. To many it seems odd and potentially wasteful to have everyone largely doing their own thing. Indeed, I have spoken to some who have admitted that their companies have benefited from this approach when they knew that a more co-ordinated approach to some procurements could have saved lots of taxpayers’ money.

Of course, with the effort under way to build the Public Services Broker, there is a very big issue of open standards — where the downstream consequences of going for a proprietary solution or architecture can be a high total cost of ownership in the longer term.

Another issue that arises with the absence of a CIO is that lessons are not being learned. There are no standard procedures for assessing the design, build and management of major systems, some of which have become the stuff of legend because of cost creep. There are no built-in mechanisms to review projects in the larger public service context using standard methodologies. True enough, it is possible to resort to the usual suspects to get an ‘independent’ evaluation of a particular project. But that’s hardly adequate for an organisation that a lot of people don’t understand and has within its own ranks many experienced and talented people who could be brought into play if such procedures were introduced.

But to bring it in, the public service will need to have something such as a CIO — someone with the political and administrative backing that such an important position demands in this age of integration and joining up. The role is essentially one of strategy and leadership. And the silos can look after themselves within that context if they are persuaded.

By Syl O’Connor