Rift over IT in public sector

10 Feb 2005

Deep divisions between departmental IT heads and central policy makers became clear in a government briefing held by research analysts from Gartner last week. The first of three speakers, John Kost, managing vice-president, was clearly bemused at the exchange of opinions that erupted when he canvassed views from delegates.

“Based on the comments today, there doesn’t seem to be a strong central focus on the IT aspects of decentralisation and that’s symptomatic of a bigger problem,” he told siliconrepublic.com after the event. He was ostensibly there to talk about shared services but soon found himself embroiled in a discussion on Ireland’s current position on e-government and its plans for decentralisation in particular.

“I was surprised by the reaction. Given the profile of the Flynn Report I would have assumed that there was a fairly substantial managerial effort in making sure it was executed properly,” he said. “The surprising part to me was that in many ways departments seem to have been left to their own devices to figure out what’s the answer that works best for them.”

Several high-profile public servants were terse in their analysis of decentralisation, describing it as a crazy political decision where logic didn’t apply. “All that seems to matter is where you do your work, not what you do or how you do it,” said one delegate.

Andrea Di Maio, Gartner research vice-president, said the process of decentralisation would affect Ireland’s wider e-government agenda. He reasoned that the move to more integrated services would inevitably be hampered when “minds might be somewhere else”. As one delegate put it: “There is a vision [around e-government] that has been discussed at secretary general level but decentralisation has muddied the waters.”

A particular aspect of decentralisation that irked the audience, and one that was addressed in the Gartner briefing, was the uncertainty surrounding technology staff. Around 75pc of the skilled IT employees based in Dublin do not want to be relocated under the terms of the decentralisation programme. According to Gartner research, employment issues inevitably arise from decentralisation. “There is a critical mass when the right skills are in the right place, serving the right organisations. You keep the highest demand employees where the skillsets are in the largest supply,” said Kost.

The Flynn Report came up with a plan for three regional IT clusters but the view from the floor at the Gartner event was that this was a pragmatic response in the absence of real discussion. There was concern that having the right people in the right place was going to be a rarity and that there would have to be a greater dependency on contract work.

Discussions with the unions about re-evaluating the role of IT personnel had been carried out centrally by the Department of Finance but had come to nothing. The Centre of Management and Organisation Development within the department — came in for some criticism, not only for letting this issue fall off the agenda but for a general inability to engage in discussion with departmental secretary generals. As one senior civil servant put it: “We had discussion but there was no dialogue.”

“Given the reputation of Ireland as a software leader, one would have the impression that there was an enlightened leadership,” commented Kost. “There is nothing wrong with decentralisation as a political agenda. There is nothing wrong with the strategy or objectives but there are lots of ways to execute it wrong from an IT perspective. There has to be a clear, integrated enterprise strategy on how to do this properly, otherwise the result, particularly around IT, could be significantly less responsive than what they have now.”

Managing technology and defining a strategy in the public sector is something that Kost knows a good deal about. From 1992-1996 he worked in Michigan as the first state chief information officer (CIO). Creating a central CIO for the entire Irish public sector is an option that has been discussed and it’s an approach that Kost obviously has some sympathy with. “The idea of a central CIO makes a great deal of sense if the leadership at the top of Government is paying enough attention. But having a CIO doesn’t guarantee anything except a focal point for conversation. If the Government doesn’t want that conversation about IT, because they don’t care or maybe because they don’t understand it, then it’s all pointless.”

He argued that the quality of IT leadership is driven in part by the quality of overall management and the execution of government. “Regardless of whether it’s a country or a state in the US, the fundamental thing is about who is responsible for the day-to-day execution and whether they understand the issues.”

In his presentation Di Maio shared the assertion that someone in a CIO-type function had to take responsibility for what he referred to as the first tier of e-government, simple integration between different agencies. Both speakers agreed that the biggest obstacle to progress was not technology but the “turf wars”, the management and interdepartmental power struggles.

Judging by the mood of attendees at this particular event, turf wars are a problem that the Irish Government is more than familiar with.

By Ian Campbell