When IT Meets Politics

Feb 7 2015   10:29AM GMT

Turning the Super Tanker: Francis Maude’s achievements to date – but its not over yet.

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo

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Cabinet office
cloud
G-Cloud
Software as a Service

Francis Maude has announced that he is not standing again at the next election but, commenting on his work with the Chancellor to drive forward the reform of public service delivery, said “there is much to do – before the election and after – to ensure the reforms are irreversible”. When he gave thanks to his team at Sprint 15 he concluded with some thoughts on the scale of the challenges ahead particularly that of changing the Civil Service culture to one of  “fail small, fail fast” so as to do a much better job of using evolving technologies:

– To put people first, with services that are simpler, clearer, faster.

– To do more, and better, for less. And we’ve shown you can do it.

– To build a truly 21st century digital government, capable of leading a world-beating digital economy”.


We can see how difficult that change will be with the strictures of the Public Accounts Committee on a Secretary of State who over-ruled his officials’ plans to follow the traditional approach of “fail big and expensive, but alibi’ed by massive consultancy and outsource spend so that we are not to blame”. At least the DWP officials and suppliers wasted a couple of ¬£billion less than their counterparts in the NHS (Tony Blair’s National Plan for IT in the Health Service), before the Minister finally forced them to take seriously his “request” (Minister’s cannot easily over-rule their officials on matters of implementation) to pilot the new processes with real claimants before scaling them up for mass roll-out.  

After reading Francis Maude’s blog to Digital Leaders, “Leading Transition in a Digital Age“, I thought back to his comments at the Conservative Party Conference in 2009 on his plans for their first 100 days. The largest room in the conference hotel was standing room only, Afterwards the responses ranged from the enthusiastic to the sceptical. Those from the policy wonks and industry lobbyists were rather different to those of IT professionals and of current and former public servants with decades of experience trying to bring about change. Most of us have since been shown to be both right and wrong.

We will never know what would have happened had the Conservatives had a working majority, but what Francis Maude has achieved under a coalition government is remarkable. The end of his first sentence in the Digital Leaders blog is, however, absolutely accurate: “we are just getting going”.    

There are two views about what “leaders” (corporate or political) should do their first “hundred days”. One (usually corporate) view is that you spend it quietly on tours of inspection, discovering just what it is that you have inherited, who is competent and willing to help you change it and who should be removed before they can stop you and your allies. The next hundred days is when you get rid of the third of those reporting to you who will never be part of any solution – and set about motivating the remainder to do the same to the tier below them. The opposite (usually political) view is that you have to prepare in advance and hit the ground running, because you will never have the same opportunity again.

Unfortunately politicians rarely have a choice. “History shows” that those who try the first option nearly always get bogged down with day-to-day pressures and achieve little if anything. The situation that the coalition government inherited in 2010 gave them no choice. 25 years of “over-enthusiastic outsourcing”, to put it mildly, meant that central government was bleeding to death and had lost the skills to stop the haemorrhaging. It had ceased to be competent either to plan and deliver change itself or to get results, let alone value for money, from those it contracted to do so. 

The task was not just to turn the Exxon Valdez (undermanned, with the captain drunk in his bunk and the radar broken) before it hit Bligh Reef. It was not just to refit the bridge with controls that were fit for purpose. It to simultaneously support the conversion of a 20th century oil tanker into a 21st century cruise liner to serve an ageing population, with the owners  mortgaged to the hilt, while the potential passengers had not saved enough to pay their fares, let alone in advance.

Looking back, we can see that in his first hundred days Frances Maude set in motion processes that have helped slowed the rate of bleeding, (the burden of inherited, inflexible outsourcing contracts and PFI deals means that it has not yet stopped) and enabled monitoring and control systems that may soon be fit purpose. The savings to date are, however, still modest compared with the £billions now in sight: for example from pooling public sector telecommunications spend to enable better, shared, services at lower cost. Hence the importance of the mapping exercise to which Fracnes Maude referred in his Sprint15 speach: the first visible product from the Digital Task Force created last year.

The achievements of the GDS to date are impressive, particularly given the start point, but in his comments to Sprint15, Fancis Maude was quite clear on the scale and nature of the task still ahead Рincluding to help achieve the £10 billion of savings targetted in December.

Provided the next government continues the process. I believe history will show that, even if he does not himself continue the task from the House of Lords, Francis Maude has not only managed to slow the tanker in time to enable refloating without too much spillage, but has also succeeded in beginning the long slow process of rebuilding the skills base of the Civil Service – so that it can indeed implement the changes necessary, provided the political driving force remains in place   

We should not, however, under-estimate the level and nature of ongoing  opposition to the introduction of  adequate (let alone good) practice and governance to a world of revolving doors between retiring civil servants and suppliers who have grown fat from selling consultant-planned “big” change programmes to their departments. The latter “know” how things should be done.  Their “vision” does not, for example, involve the mandatory use of procurement frameworks which require adherance to the open inter-operability standards. These are, however, essential for a world in which innovative small firms and co-operatives of users are expected to produce the pieces for incremental “jigsaw solutions” that can and will evolve, using agile methodologies and changing components from changing players, as needs and technologies change.

Many, both officials and suppliers, would still prefer to delay change in the hope that the post election government will revert to the traditional spendthrift approach, mortgaging the future even further, if they cannot raise the net tax yield. Their careers, including post-retirement life styles, depend on preventing a world of incremental and evolutionary change. Their interests are mirrored by all those consultants, lawyers and lobbyists who are used to receiving big fees for big projects, whether they go right or wrong. The future for the rest of us and our children and grandchildren will be bleak if they succeed.

The good news is that at least some of the big beasts of the IT world, including some surprising names, are beginning to really get their heads round how to make serious money from supporting customers’ in-house teams and collectives of innovative SMEs and third-sector players in the delivery of solutions that use open, inter-operable, cloud-based, software-as-a-software to deliver better service, at lower cost, more reliably, on positive cash flow, The bad news is that they are still a minority.    

I hope that, freed of the need for fight a seat in the next election, Francis Maude will help ensure progress with what he has set in train right up until the election day and then return, perhaps via the House of Lords, to continue the fight – having found a suitable successor to look after the voters of Horsham and answer parliamentary questions.   

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