On March 30th the UK Cabinet Office published its long-awaited IT strategy, which is interesting and aggressive in many respects. It touches upon several areas of concern for IT effectiveness and efficiency.
It does start by recognizing that there are waste and failures in government IT and suggesting that this is the priority to be addressed. When addressing cost optimization and how to deal with the reality of tighter budgets, it often appears that people almost give for granted the efficiencies that can be obtained within IT, and focus the conversation on how IT can help the business become mo efficient.
The UK strategy starts the other way around, focusing first on what can be saved in IT by reusing more, breaking down large projects into smaller chunks, opening procurement to smaller vendors, and pushing on open source adoption.
The strategy document also announces that government will create both a platform and a common and secure ICT infrastructure based on the compulsory use of open standards. This refers to the G-Cloud strategy, which will be issues soon in a new version, and hints to a more decisive approach to consolidation and centralization than ever before. Large departments, such as HRMC, DWP and the Home Office, will step up as “foundational delivery partners” (a term currently used in the available G-cloud documents), leading a revamped shared service approach, with a stronger “compulsory” spin than ever before. The governance arrangements described in the strategy hint to a stronger role for large department CIOs through a CIO Delivery Board which sits somewhat on top of the CIO council.
The third part of the strategy suggests that new channels and applications would be built by third parties, using Directgov as a platform. Social media and innovation are also mentioned, with the establishment of a Director of ICT Futures, who should ensure technology watch and a stimulus function to facilitate the adoption of emerging technologies.
We will be commenting in detail about the strategy and its impact for UK government departments in a Gartner research note, but I wanted to explore what this strategy could mean for the rest of the European public sector.
EU countries have always been watching with interest and often followed the lead of the UK government in many IT-related areas: the so-called millennium bug at the end of the last decade, and electronic government afterward are just two examples. The cultural and language affinity to other advanced users of IT – such as the US, Canada and Australia – and the sheer size of IT spending overall and per employee have always put the UK government at the forefront of many EU-wide IT-related phenomena. One for all, the UK Government Interoperability Framework, which was developed earlier than any other, and was already in its n-th version when the first version of the European Interoperability Framework was agreed.
Most if not all European countries struggle with the same problems, although at a different extent: shrinking budgets, financial sustainability, sluggish economic development in places, incasing immigration. Many are looking at how to save money by greater sharing and centralization. I have recently visited the Netherlands and Denmark, where such discussions are at the top of the agenda.
The UK strategy takes all this up a notch. Interestingly enough, there is no reference to shared services as part of the strategy. These are a given now, and the next phase is about greater centralization and harmonization in how infrastructure is procured and utilized, how projects are architected, how IT services are sourced, and how technical standards are selected and enforced.
In many respects, the UK strategy goes in the opposite direction with the respect to the second version of the European Interoperability Framework, which – while giving a nice and comprehensive view of what interoperability implies – sets quite loose requirements in terms of selection of technical standards, let alone quite a flexible attitude toward open standards. During the debate around this new version, which took well over three years, one of the most contentious points has been the role of open standards. Many open standard and open source supporters believe that the new version is too wek as it recites that
When establishing European public services, public administrations should prefer open specifications, taking due account of the coverage of functional needs, maturity and market support
and more precisely
public administrations may decide to use less open specifications, if open specifications do not exist or do not meet functional interoperability needs
The UK strategy sets the record straight and does not suggest any compromise: open standards are a mandatory requirement.
Further, while the strategy does not change the previous attitude toward open source (it is not compulsory, but must be considered on equal footing with proprietary software), it provides greater emphasis and may reinforce the pro-open source attitudes in several corners of Europe.
The other interesting lead for other European governments is the potential to challenge incumbent vendors by mandating open standards, pushing for reuse, creating a better environment for SMEs to be involved in service delivery.
The UK strategy is certainly ambitious albeit risky, although it has the potential to change the pace across the EU as far as government IT management is concerned. However, such a change requires a relentless drive from the top, a formidable amount of change management, and to secure and retain the skills needed for it to happen. Government track records are not stellar on most of these, but the need to ensure financial sustainability of government services and operation may create the right context to achieve at least some of the objectives.
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