Running the risk

2 Jan 2009

One of the main characteristics of the e-government crusade over the past eight to 10 years was the almost universal obsession with putting things online without a whole lot of thought about whether it was worth the effort or not. It was fashionable, and most countries were very dedicated to following the new fashion.

After a few years, it started to dawn on people that this great obsession was a bit misdirected in that it concentrated on the tools and the toys rather than on the business objectives. It wasn’t a great surprise then to discover that many of the services being put online were not actually being used all that much, not to mention that in many cases, the very people who needed online access were not often able to avail of it. Broadband was not widespread, and the statistics showed that many of the target groups hadn’t the skills or the desire to use the internet.

Of course, it’s all a bit academic now. The new reality now facing us, with the mega-deficits and the spate of derivative debauchery in banking that has brought the world to the edge of an economic black hole, has dramatically changed the way organisations are managing their spending from here on. The fashion days are well and truly over.

In many ways this is a good thing because the pressure to tighten up on spending means it’s time to abandon the fads and take a more pragmatic approach to investing in technology. It is well known that most people don’t use much of the functionality they have on their desk, yet organisations pay huge software licence fees just to have it there. While governments are big ICT consumers, the traditional fragmented structures and autonomies mean they don’t always exploit their own purchasing power.

There is now an increasing momentum towards applications such as those provided by Google, which means that the day is not far off where most ICT users will have much cheaper laptops or notebooks with which to connect to their data sources and they will use free or inexpensive software.

It has to be remembered, though, that ICT is primarily a tool to be used by people in processes that are fundamental to the organisation’s missions and goals. Pressure to reduce costs, especially in these very difficult times, is creating a need for organisations to improve their performance – to achieve better results in terms of administration and service. This can mean substantial changes to organisational culture, people’s working lives, the business processes and the tools that they use. And, as our e-government experiences showed, you couldn’t change one without looking at the others as well, ensuring that there is a harmonious approach to the whole change process.

At a time like this, there is a natural tendency for money minders to hold sway and dismiss talk of innovation as just another expensive fad. It’s hard to blame them when you consider how many expensive fads we’ve seen come and go over the last decade,

all in the name of progress. Yet, there is a case for innovation now more than ever before, precisely because cutting costs by reducing overheads and maximising the use of assets are very good reasons to innovate. The problem, of course, is that innovation implies risk – and risk is something that most of us want to avoid, particularly at a time when resources are becoming scarce.

Innovation inevitably means some element of experimentation, which also implies that things may not work out as we hoped they would. All this means that innovation should continue to be encouraged and promoted, but conducted in a way that ensures that the impact of failure is minimised and that lessons can be learned.

Many would argue that the public services should be followers rather than leaders – that the public sector should let the private sector do the experimentation and product development first. Some observers say that private sector trends (or fads) in management and administration have been imported into the public sector and continue to be followed long after they have been discredited and discontinued in the private sector. We know by now that the private sector is fundamentally different to the public sector, and that it is not always a good thing to follow the trends set by the private sector. Indeed, the current international banking turmoil was the product of private sector ‘innovation’ that went out of control.

It makes good sense, therefore, for public sector innovation to be conducted by the public sector. However, accepting that there are potential risks involved, a possible approach would be to link up with academia and industry (and other administrations) in a way that allows for risks to be properly managed and failures to be exploited.

By Colm Butler