There is one particular sentence that I have heard countless times over the five or six years: doing more with less. First time I heard it was during the first efficiency review conducted by Sir Peter Gershon for the UK government, where for the first time after many years the case for government cost containment and operational efficiency was clearly made. Since then, countries around the world have adopted this expression to indicate the challenge ahead of them.
More recently, the financial crisis, the economic recession, the intractable sovereign debt in some countries and the increased sense of austerity that surrounds the public sector almost anywhere have made the sentence even more popular. Recently I heard an interesting variation by Ian Watmore, the UK government chief operating officer, who restated it as “better for less“, to capture the need for constantly improving outcomes with shrinking resources.
However what we are witnessing in terms of budgetary and efficiency pressures is unprecedented. Just a few days ago I was talking to two clients, one in a local and one in a national government organization who told me that their headcount was being reduced respectively from 400 to 280 in less than two years, and from 1100 to 700 in about six months. Facing this speed of change and loss of internal knowledge requires radically new approaches. This is why Gartner is now doing search on smart government, where smart stands for affordable and (mostly financially) sustainable.
The sentence that probably captures best what is needed is: “good enough for (almost) free“. We cannot aim any longer for optimal solutions and grand reform schemes. We need to apply 80-20, and sometimes even 70-30, principles and aim for ways to get these at extraordinary low costs. This means to embrace consumer technology, to rely on standardized public cloud services rather than build expensive private clouds, to massively leverage social networks to reach out to non-government knowledge and resources, including ex-employees who have been pushed to retire or let go and may be still available to help.
Of course people will oppose security concerns to this view. Indeed government has to comply with loads of regulations and has a duty of care for what concerns data, processes and services. But how many of these do require very high security standards? And is it always true that government organizations are always the best when it comes to secure information?
It is time to take a hard look at good-enough security as well as good-enough service levels, good-enough project management, good-enough maturity levels. Also pursuing particularly high levels of maturity of the IT organization using great standards such as ITIL, COBIT, PRINCE 2, CMM and the likes may not be as useful as many think. I know this sounds controversial and I may even clash with some of our own Gartner advice about IT maturity models (indeed, this blog expresses my own position): however extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary measures. Most of the ethos behind the need for greater maturity comes from a world that was less turbulent, more predictable and where challenges looked less intractable.
It is clear that nobody in his or her right mind would ever pursue such an approach, where risks are clear (non-compliance, departure from best practices, greater employee empowerment) and rewards are less so. However in man cases we may be very close to a tipping point where there is simply no other option than trying something radically different and definitely much cheaper.