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The unbearable sense of IT inferiority of European governments toward the UK

by Andrea Di Maio  |  May 16, 2011  |  1 Comment

A few days ago I had a conversation with people from a southern European country about the state of government IT in Europe, with particular reference to what the European Commission is doing on large-scale projects and their benchmarking activities to compare progress across EU Member States.

We agreed that, bas on our collective experience (in my case dating back to my days as a project partner in EU-funded projects and then a European Commission officer) the seems to be a sense of inferiority that certain countries, such as Italy, Spain and Portugal, feel toward the UK, which has always played a leading role on IT matters. One great example was the “millennium bug”, followed by the first e-government strategy, the first interoperability framework, the concept of “joined-up government” and now more recently the open data initiative. Being more advanced, the UK has either directly or indirectly set the pace for many EU-wide activities. Not surprisingly though, no all of them have been successful, and certainly not so for all those involved.

From the dubious value (but the certain cost) of relentlessly putting all services on line to the establishment of a government-wide CIO role, from their shared service initiatives to the linked open data mantra by charismatic Whitehall consultant Tim Berners-Lee, I keep hearing people in southern European countries in awe with what the Brits are doing. This often extends to other small countries or more recent EU joiners, and even transpires beyond the strong sense of identity of countries like Germany and France.

While it is a fact that the British government has been progressive in many areas, it is also true that their cultural proximity to other Anglo-Saxon governments like the US, Canadian and Australian ones, as well as the use of English, which is the international lingua franca of IT, has given them a head start. If one looks at their struggle with large projects and outsourcing deals, their endless pursuit of shared services, the seemingly impossible battle with layers and layers of legacy technology, the British government looks much closer to the rest of the pack, with the additional downside that everybody else is watching them.

Over the years I have come to hating the term “best practice” because it has turned into a copycat rather than a source of inspiration. The British government, and any other government for that matter, does not offer best practices, but just practices that should be evaluated in the context of any recipient government that is considering their adoption. Were those practices successful, and are they sustainable? Do we have the right preconditions – regulatory framework, strategic priorities, skills, budget, and so forth – to apply them in our context? And, equally importantly, are there any of our practices that would be worth sharing with other governments, hence taking the time and effort to communicate them to a wider audience (including packaging, translating and marketing them)?

I wonder whether this sense of inferiority is caused by an even combination of how progressive the British government has been on many IT matters, and how shy other countries have been in socializing their own experiences and accomplishments.

Which leads me to my last point. The EU can do a lot to help member states exchange their practices, bridging the language and cultural gaps, supporting cross-fertilization by staff exchanges and common projects. They should just get rid of the “best” close to the term “practice”.

Category: europe-and-it  

Andrea Di Maio
Managing VP
15 years at Gartner
28 years IT industry

Andrea Di Maio is a managing vice president for public sector in Gartner Research, covering government and education. His personal research focus is on digital government strategies strategies, Web 2.0, open government, cloud computing, the business value of IT, smart cities, and the impact of technology on the future of government Read Full Bio

Thoughts on The unbearable sense of IT inferiority of European governments toward the UK

  1. Aniello DiMeglio says:

    You make a very good point. It seems the term “best practice,” is often taken literally. Many organizations implement so called best practices instead of looking at specific problem areas, exposing them and addressing the specific situation. Best practices become a large band-aid covering a wound. If care is not taken to adapt them to the organization they can backfire. Sometimes, the IT band-aid also covers the eyes and ears which cause more problem than it fixes. These ancillary problem are then obfuscated by even larger band-aids resulting in layers upon layers of administrative red-tape. The patient now can hardly move.

    Best practices are often confused with standards.

    The French translation of “best practices” is pratiques exemplaires which I believe is more appropriate and leaves a certain room to questions – maybe French, although not the lingua france, does have some qualities.

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