Without wishing to sound like a Nike advert, IT is entering the age of “just do it”.
One of the most important aspects of the digital transformation underway in Whitehall has been the Government Digital Service mantra of “show don’t tell”. If they see a need, they just get on and develop something to show people, instead of spending endless weeks gathering requirements and documenting specifications. “You want us to do that? Is this the sort of thing you mean?”
You can wrap it up in whatever buzzword you like – agile, disruption, digital, etc – but the essential change taking place in corporate technology delivery is the need to respond quickly and with flexibility to changing needs.
It is no longer acceptable to send your business analysts in to spend a couple of months drawing flowcharts and writing documents, turning that into a project spec and assembling a team to spend the next 12 months trying to make it happen. In the meantime, your “just do it” rivals have iterated their way to a competitive edge months ago.
Compare, for example, the online fashion players like Net-a-porter and Asos with their agile development approaches and constant updates, with Marks & Spencer. M&S used to outsource its e-commerce website to Amazon. When it decided to bring it back in house it led to a two-year development project and a “big bang” launch. Three months later, M&S online sales were down 8% year on year; in its latest financial results this week they were still down 6%.
Look instead at Nationwide – the building society has just become the first retail bank to offer a smartwatch app, for real-time balance checking. That’s a product that it is easy for some to be cynical about – jumping on a bandwagon, just a gimmick etc. But so what? Nationwide just did it – what is there to lose?
Some of the hoary old traditional IT suppliers are realising this too. HP and Microsoft, for example, have been justifiably criticised for a lack of innovation in recent years. But in the past week, HP launched its latest concept PC – strangely named Sprout – and Microsoft announced an internet of things headset designed to help visually impaired people find their way around unfamiliar places.
The success or otherwise of both products might be questionable – but it sends out the message that the suppliers are willing to try, to innovate, to just do it.
There will always be the occasions when a conventional “waterfall” style project is still more appropriate, but this is destined to be the exception. In a digital world, IT leaders need to be less “just do IT” and more “just do it”.
The old cliché about open standards has never been truer – that the great thing about them is there are so many to choose from.
Look at the Wikipedia page on the topic, for example. It lists 20 different definitions of what an open standard is, and at least 30 different specifications all of which claim to be a definitive open standard in their field.
The history of IT is one of numerous attempts to get interested parties around a table and agree how to make stuff work together. Most often, such initiatives have floundered on the simple truth that most hardware and software manufacturers have little to gain from being genuinely open. Why make it easy for users to switch away from your products, or to plug in other companies’ products at the expense of your own?
Most standards that have achieved the necessary ubiquity have done so despite official attempts to formalise rather than because of them. The internet is the best example – while vendors spent years trying to agree international standards for networking, the rest of the world just got on and used internet protocol and it became the de facto standard.
Lack of standards leads only to single supplier dominance – the effective standard for PCs for 25 years has been Windows, and for all the benefits that has delivered, it still leaves many organisations locked into Microsoft.
The same is happening in the cloud today – Amazon Web Services has become the dominant player by building an ecosystem based on its technology and APIs. Azure and Google are playing catch-up – but with no interoperability between clouds. More than ever, users are demanding cloud standards to prevent a repeat of the past.
The IT4IT Forum set up by the likes of Shell and BP, along with Microsoft, HP and IBM, is another welcome user-led initiative but is hardly the first time this has been tried. But perhaps – hopefully – one thing is different now. The consumerisation of IT has shown how much innovation can be sparked by genuine interoperability – even if Apple and Android still exist in rival ecosystems, an app on one can still talk to the same app on another.
The digital revolution will be built on openness, not proprietary products. Any vendor that wants to succeed must genuinely play the open game.
Corporate users need to demand open interoperability – it is no longer enough for a vendor to say that it’s too complicated. The balance of power has shifted to IT buyers, and it’s time they told their suppliers to change.
A big thank you to Socitm, the society for local government IT leaders, for inviting me to chair their annual conference, which took place last week in Manchester.
As a Liverpool FC supporter, the awkward choice of Old Trafford as the venue did at least give me the opportunity to poke some fun at the local team in Salford – one presumes that in this age of austerity, Socitm got the stadium cheaply given it’s not being used in midweek this season…
But more importantly, it was a chance to chat with some of the most forward-thinking IT leaders in the sector – those grappling with the dual challenges of major budget cuts and the move to digital government. Thanks to the likes of Socitm president Nick Roberts, formerly at Surrey County Council; John Jackson, CIO at Camden council; Steve Halliday at Solihull; Warwickshire CIO Tonino Ciuffini; Staffordshire’s Sander Kristel; Martin Sadler at Walsall – and anybody else I’ve forgotten to mention.
There were a number of themes and issues, and I thought it best to round up as many of them as I can in one place.
Local digital – just do it
In the run up to Socitm 2014, there has been much debate about how best to approach digital across the sector, given that almost every council will have very similar needs, in similar timescales, as austerity continues to bite over the course of the next five-year parliamentary cycle.
There is a growing recognition that the old model for local government (LG) IT is broken – a similar realisation in Whitehall led to the creation of the Government Digital Service (GDS) to stimulate reform in central government.
Some 70% of the LG software market is owned by three suppliers – Capita, Northgate and Civica. Just as Whitehall suffered for its dominance by the oligopoly of big system integrators, so LG IT is held back by a lack of competition with few incentives for suppliers to innovate and break their cosy status quo.
There has been a lot of talk about creating a Local GDS to develop common platforms across the sector, but the politics around such an organisation – Who would fund it? Who would lead it? – mean it’s unlikely to work.
GDS deputy director Tom Loosemore addressed the Local GDS question in his keynote speech, urging delegates not to focus on that as the issue, but to think instead about what need they are seeking to meet and what problems have to be solved.
In its simplest terms, that need is change, according to the LG CIOs I talked to – change that in the past would have meant turning to an IT supplier to ask what they can do to help. But calls for a Local GDS are really highlighting the need for LG IT to do more digital among themselves, without relying on off-the-shelf software and inflexible outsourcing deals.
The old ways would be to define a series of digital platforms for LG and invite suppliers to develop them. The new way is to just get on and do it yourself – but to share that work around the sector. Open up data by wrapping APIs around legacy systems; encourage app developers to develop services around that data, and as one council develops a platform, share that as open source code with anyone else who wants it. Apparently there are now six or seven different apps for reporting potholes, ever since roads data was opened up, for example. And by the way, once you abstract those old legacy systems behind an API layer, they later become much easier to get rid of.
It’s not that different from the principles GDS promotes – but it’s a more ground-up way to develop local government as a platform, and more in keeping with the localism of the sector.
There is a lot of inertia still in LG, but a few forward thinkers are breaking that logjam. The overriding message I heard from those leaders is that everyone in the sector needs to just get out there and do it – develop services, try them out, see how they work, and share the lessons (and the code).
Next year’s conference would be perfect if it consisted entirely of council IT chiefs demonstrating all the new digital services they have created, for anybody else attending to also use.
Turkeys voting for Christmas
One of the most popular talks at Socitm 2014 came from Mark Thompson, an academic, consultant, digital advocate and author on digital government. He kick-started a debate on a critical issue for LG – and equally for Westminster – that ultimately the people who need to make the cash available to fund digital government within local councils are the very ones whose jobs are most threatened as a result of digital government.
Thompson has written on this question for Computer Weekly in the past – as public services are disintermediated in the same way as, for example, music and movies have been in the entertainment industry, much of the local bureaucracy that currently supports those services becomes redundant.
Why do you need people to co-ordinate pothole repairs, for example, if they are reported through an app that automatically passes details on to a council-approved repair contractor?
One IT chief told me his board instructed him to make 60% cost savings – and that’s after all the austerity cuts of the past few years. He benchmarked his cost against other councils in the same region and found he was already one of the most efficient. So he went to the board and said, if you want me to do this, you need to let all staff use their own devices; you need to get rid of our datacentre and use the cloud; and you need to let me redevelop any of our applications to make them digital. And on that realisation, the board baulked, realising the effect that would have on them, perhaps.
As Sander Kristel said in a Tweet, turkeys are not going to vote for Christmas – it’s the “elephant in the room” of digital government,
It’s a real question that LG digital leaders will have to address – but nobody has the answer yet.
Are IT suppliers gaming G-Cloud?
Local government has been criticised for not making enough use of G-Cloud, the central framework for buying commodity cloud software and services set up by GDS and the Cabinet Office. G-Cloud chief Tony Singleton came to Socitm 2014 to encourage delegates to buy more of their requirements that way. Lack of awareness and understanding of G-Cloud has been cited as the main reasons for the apparent reticence to use it.
But several people I talked to suggested a different reason – that they can buy identical services from the same suppliers more cheaply than they are offered on G-Cloud.
The aim of the G-Cloud online catalogue is to use price transparency to increase competition and drive down prices. But some LG CIOs believe that suppliers are artificially inflating prices on G-Cloud so as not to reveal their true charges to rivals. Furthermore, those same CIOs insist that LG has always negotiated lower prices than central government for IT – and therefore, G-Cloud seems cheap in Whitehall, but less so in councils.
Given the secrecy and commercial confidentiality that suppliers maintain around the fees they charge individual public sector bodies, it’s hard to prove that claim one way or the other. But many LG IT buyers are convinced that G-Cloud is simply not the best deal on the market.
Double silos – the extra layer of complexity for local digital
GDS is leading the way in Whitehall for moving away from the department-oriented IT silos in central government, to platform-focused shared delivery of services. It’s a huge task.
But in local government, that task is effectively doubled. Within each council there are similar departmental silos – transport, housing, social care and so on. And then there are the siloes between councils – neighbouring authorities who in the not-so-distant past worked on the basis that if next-door bought IBM, they would buy HP to be different. Nobody wants to admit that the bloke next door does things better.
So for an LG IT leader, they are trying to convince their own organisation to think differently, while also trying to encourage other councils to share their resources and efforts to build digital services with them across all their internal silos too.
Work that one out.
It’s not been a great week for retailers. Look at Tesco – terrible; online sales grew by a whole 11%. And ailing DIY chain Homebase too – digital revenue up by 12%.
Of course, you might only have seen the headlines about Tesco’s profit decline and accounting errors, or Homebase shutting a quarter of its stores. As a result, you might not have heard that Homebase’s sister-company Argos saw online sales reach 43% of revenue; mobile sales increase by 45% in six months; or that 22% of sales now come through mobile or tablet devices.
Since the dot com boom of the late 1990s, we have heard much discussion about “bricks and clicks” – retailers looking to merge the best of the online and physical worlds. But even after all that talk, there are plenty still not getting it right.
If you look at two of the best performing high-street retail giants – Argos and John Lewis – what distinguishes them is a genuinely integrated multi-channel approach to their customers. Want to buy online and collect in store? You can do that. Want to buy something in the shop that is out of stock? Sure – here’s a tablet device to use, we’ll deliver to home for you.
Argos is even trialling digital concept stores – effectively, a physical store that sells digitally to customers who visit in person.
Tesco continues to be a leader and innovator in online retail – but perhaps underestimated the impact its digital success would have on austerity era shoppers unwilling or unable to afford premium products in store. Factor in aggressive low-cost competitors like Aldi and Lidl and you get the current problems.
Many retailers still see digital as something separate to their stores when their customers see them simply as different windows into their stock room. As happens in every sector, online was first seen as a threat – will the web replace the high street? Then it was seen as a complement – to save the high street, go online.
The truth is that technology does not simply replace or supersede anything – instead it fragments markets into many pieces, and eliminates barriers to entry. It demands an often radically different approach to customer engagement, not a bolt-on to old ways. Things change – and that’s hard for a lot of incumbents to deal with.
The main thing that is killing the high street is retailers’ reluctance to embrace digital and innovate their business models. The message from hard-up shoppers is clear – retailers need to go where their customers are.
TechUK, the IT industry trade body, kindly invited me to chair a panel debate at their launch this week of a “three-point plan” to improve the relationship between IT suppliers and government buyers.
At such a critical time for the progress of digital government, any initiative to position the IT industry better to help drive that strategy forward should be welcomed. But as I put it to TechUK CEO Julian David, surely this should have been business as usual for IT suppliers for years?
David was honest enough to acknowledge past problems and pragmatic enough to focus on future challenges, and for what it’s worth I think he is taking TechUK in the right direction and giving the IT sector a much bigger voice in both Whitehall IT and Westminster policy-making.
But you can’t get away from the fact that the only reason such a plan is needed is because the relationship between IT suppliers and government IT buyers became so bad. There is fault on both sides of course, but in recent years Whitehall IT chiefs have done much more to correct their side than many of their traditional suppliers have.
As one member of the audience at the launch event pointed out, surely the fact that the TechUK plan was produced – by their own admission – without input from government IT buyers is a clear weakness, even if TechUK is eager to have such discussions now.
If you asked a reasonable sample of government IT leaders for their three-point plan for IT suppliers, I reckon it would look something like this:
1. Don’t be greedy – be open
3. Focus on our user needs not your products
If you look at some of the firms that have prospered in government in recent years, most would fit into all those categories – they are generally smaller, more collaborative, more agile than the traditional system integrator types with their penchant for outsourcing mega-deals, off-the-shelf products and complex software licensing.
The big suppliers are trying though – slowly. HP, for example, recently brought its CEO, Meg Whitman, and several of her top team to London to co-host an “innovation summit” with head of the civil service Sir Jeremy Heywood, other permanent secretaries and government digital and IT leaders.
Of course they spoiled it somewhat by both sides agreeing not to say anything in public about what was discussed – I’ve tried – but you would hope that at the very least items two and three from my list above were the focus, considering HP still takes £1.7bn out of the public purse every year.
The TechUK panel also discussed the comment by Government Digital Service chief Mike Bracken in a recent Computer Weekly interview that “the ideal engagement [with suppliers] is via a browser”. Not surprisingly, supplier representatives felt that was a little unrealistic.
But if nothing else, Bracken’s comment serves as an ongoing warning to the IT industry that government will no longer be a pushover, and that many suppliers still need to improve the way they engage with their most important customer.
In July, the government revealed the existence of the Prime Minister’s Digital Taskforce – notable at that time mainly for the fact that Tech City chair and former Facebook Europe managing director Joanna Shields had become its first appointee,
The taskforce, we were told, was headed by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, along with Ed Vaizey, recently appointed as digital economy minister after David Cameron’s Cabinet reshuffle.
In the three months since then we have seen a lot of pre-election digital activity from, erm, the Labour Party. The party’s Digital Skills Taskforce reported its findings in late July; Labour published the submissions to its Digital Government Review the same month; and at the party conference in September, a group of Labour digital activists backed by shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna published a report calling for a £10bn, five-year plan to make the UK the world’s leading digital economy.
Kudos to Labour for making digital an issue.
But the PM’s taskforce? Nothing. Last month, Computer Weekly asked the Cabinet Office for an update on its progress, its remit and timelines. Three weeks later, they got back to us to say it is “early days” and that “it’s down to the taskforce to say how we stay ahead in this area”. Although apparently Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat minister for employment relations and consumer affairs, is also now a deputy chair, presumably to add a Coalition flavour to the exercise.
Even the IT industry – in the guise of trade body TechUK – has since published a digital manifesto for the next government.
You don’t think someone forgot, do you?
To be fair, the Cabinet Office can of course point to the great progress made by the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the emergence of what Maude called “mini GDSs” in Whitehall departments. The PM does have the advantage of being able to point to things the government has actually done – supporting Tech City, reforming the computing curriculum, promoting digital apprenticeships – rather than simply making statements of intent about things it would like to do.
But as the 2015 election approaches – and let’s face it, all the political parties are into campaigning mode already – the digital and technology community will be looking to the Tories for their 2020 vision.
It’s not too late of course, but if you’re going to announce a digital taskforce in the Prime Minister’s name, you’d better be sure it’s not just populist rhetoric.
We await further details with continued interest.
Leo Apotheker must be tearing out whatever hair he has left. The former HP chief executive was sacked in 2011 less than a year into his reign for having the temerity to try to sell off the IT giant’s PC division.
Three years later, his successor Meg Whitman announced this week that after extensive planning during two years of a five-year “turnaround plan”, the future of HP is… to split off its PC and printers division.
As many observers have said in the days since her announcement: “Duh!”
HP has succumbed to the inevitable, realising at long last that trying to run a consumer-oriented PC / mobile business under the same umbrella as a corporate-focused IT infrastructure business is untenable.
IBM realised this years ago in selling its PC division to Lenovo – indeed, IBM has taken it further by also selling Lenovo its x86 server business this year. HP’s move leaves Microsoft and Dell as the only remaining big IT suppliers trying to combine significant consumer and corporate product lines.
Microsoft’s new CEO Satya Nadella has already faced calls to split off the software giant’s consumer business too – and it is noticeable how his language around Windows has changed to emphasise its enterprise IT strengths. Questions remain over Dell’s ability to maintain a PC business alongside its infrastructure products – but at least CEO Michael Dell no longer has the pressure of external shareholders to worry about since buying back the company he founded.
HP’s decision is as sensible as it was inevitable – even if it was three years late. But it hasn’t taken away a lot of question marks over the newly named Hewlett Packard Enterprise half of the company that will become the corporate IT infrastructure supplier.
The hardware business is in long-term decline – hence IBM’s server sell-off – and HP has allowed rivals and new entrants to out-innovate in most of its core future markets: flash storage, software-defined networking, cloud services and so on.
HP is no longer a technology leader in any of the key IT sectors – even in those where it remains the market leader thanks to its legacy customers. The company is pushing cloud heavily – and recently acquired cloud software specialist Eucalyptus to help – but is miles behind Amazon Web Services (AWS). It’s even miles behind Google and Microsoft Azure – themselves miles behind AWS.
Some observers have questioned whether HP will now sell off its IT services division – the former EDS, acquired for $13.9bn in 2008 before a $9bn write-down in 2012. Others have suggested further acquisitions or mergers – EMC in particular has been mentioned – but HP’s recent history of acquisitions is about as bad as it gets, with that $9bn EDS write-off followed by $1.2bn lost on Palm and $8.8bn on Autonomy.
For HP’s customers it has been a whirlwind – but most of them have HP so embedded into their IT infrastructure that it will take an extended refresh cycle before any worried CIOs choose to dump HP entirely. As a result, HP has been protected by its sheer size – it has, in effect, been too big to fail.
But now the supplier becomes voluntarily smaller, that protection starts to erode. It is easy to see a future where further parts of the company are sold off, where legacy businesses decline, and growth in emerging technologies fails to replace that revenue.
Will the historic Hewlett Packard name still be a major force in IT in 2020? It’s impossible to say, either way, with any certainty.
It was hugely welcome to see the prominence that digital issues were given during the Labour and Conservative party conferences. Nobody would pretend that voters will make their decisions based on digital policy over NHS, the economy or education, but politicians are taking IT seriously and realising the benefits it can deliver, more than ever before.
This is also a good opportunity to give credit where it is due. We have come a very long way with government IT since the last election. Before May 2010 we still had plans for an ID cards system, for a children’s database, and the ongoing fiasco of the NHS National Programme. The scale of change since then should not be underestimated.
Under the leadership of digital chief Mike Bracken and CTO Liam Maxwell – backed by the political weight of Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude – enormous progress has been made in cutting IT waste, bringing vital skills back in house, and embedding digital across Whitehall departments.
The first Civil Service chief executive was appointed this week – the second item on the list of his priorities in the press release was “digital transformation of public services and the way government works”. That would have been unthinkable just five years ago, when government IT was a thing done by big system integrators that cost billions and was prone to expensive failure.
Listen to Mike Bracken talk about the next five-year parliamentary cycle, and he is confident that digital transformation will be far greater than what has taken place in this parliament. Read Sir Jeremy Heywood, the head of the Civil Service, writing about how “government as a platform” is central to reforming Whitehall and its policy-making processes.
Words are not actions of course, but changing the language is an important step to changing the culture. In a short space of time, we are now in a very different and much improved world when it comes to IT in government.
That’s not to say there aren’t still risks and problems to address. The troubled launch of the DVLA’s new online car tax service shows that for all the positivity around digital, mistakes can and will still be made.
As more of the first wave of digital services go live, scrutiny will be intense. In particular, the Verify identity assurance service that is central to digital citizen engagement will need to prove itself as its first public beta is readied for launch very soon. Of all the new digital services, Verify seems to be attracting the most cynicism from some quarters – and in many ways is the most complex to deliver and to sell to the public.
Five years ago, we hoped that IT would be recognised across government for the benefits it can deliver – but time and again Computer Weekly was writing about project failures that simply repeated the same old problems.
Now, that recognition is there at last – we are going in the right direction. There will be problems, maybe more high-profile failures along the way, but the context for government IT is very different as the general election race hots up. Whoever wins the public’s vote bears the responsibility to continue the positive progress that has been made.
In May 2010, Computer Weekly posed 10 IT questions that the new government would have to answer – here is a brief report card on how well they have done so far:
What happens to all the contracts signed for now-scrapped projects such as ID cards and ContactPoint?
Sorted and forgotten about. 10/10
Who will fund next-generation broadband roll-out?
The BDUK allocation of £1.7bn to support rural broadband roll-out has been controversial – not least that all that cash went to BT – but progress has certainly been made. 7/10
What are the plans for IT skills development and the IT curriculum in schools?
The new computing curriculum started in September and has been welcomed by industry and educators alike. The IT skills shortage in the sector remains, but the growth of apprenticeships – supported by both main political parties – is helping to make a dent. Much more still needs to be done though. 6/10
What happens to public sector IT spending and the government IT strategy?
The Cabinet Office aggressively renegotiated a number of existing IT deals, and the government digital strategy claims to have saved a further £200m – even if the National Audit Office has questioned some of that figure. 7/10
Does the NHS IT Programme have a future?
Rightly scrapped, although not without controversy as key supplier CSC was still set to benefit to the tune of £600m despite its abject failure to deliver. NHS IT has been devolved, but the wider funding crisis in the health service means progress has been slower than hoped. 6/10
How to tackle illegal downloading?
Some rather ham-fisted legislation has been put in place, and new copyright laws came into force this month. But this remains a controversial and complex area. 5/10
Do we still have a digital inclusion strategy?
Progress has been slow, but a new digital inclusion strategy was finally published this year, and a team within GDS is now responsible for ensuring that people who don’t use the internet can still use new digital services. 6/10
What next for open data?
Francis Maude declares himself a supporter of open data, and again, a lot of progress has been made and much more public data is now open to all – even if there are some technical problems to overcome, and much more data yet to be released. 7/10
Will IT projects be made more transparent?
Progress on the 25 digital exemplars has been admirably public, with status updates available on the web for all to see. More than 80 services now have online performance dashboards to monitor service levels. But there remains a culture of secrecy in pockets, not least the Department for Work and Pensions, rightly criticised for the lack of transparency around the troubled Universal Credit IT project. Overall, progress is being made, but much room for improvement. 6/10
What will be done to support UK innovation?
Tech City has been established as a flagship brand for UK startups and the buzz around the tech startup scene is greater than ever. Big companies are supporting startups – partly to make up for the lack of innovation coming from their traditional IT suppliers – and the influence of the startup scene in Number 10 is higher than ever. We haven’t created the British Facebook or Google yet though. 7/10
He singled out IT employers for bringing in a growing number of overseas workers, while the number of apprentices entering the sector fell. “You must provide apprenticeships for the next generation,” he said. And he’s right.
Labour wants to force companies to take on one apprentice for every non-EU worker they bring in – and to make apprenticeships a condition of being a supplier to government. Putting aside the practicalities of such a policy, the intent is very welcome.
For too long now, Computer Weekly has had to highlight the massive dichotomy in UK IT – every employer says there is a huge skills shortage, yet training budgets are down and the number of young people entering the IT profession is falling.
Figures out this week show that IT graduates are nearly twice as likely as average to be unemployed six months after leaving university – and that is despite IT graduates being the best paid.
And yet, research suggests that 120,000 new recruits are needed every year into UK IT. Some estimates suggest the UK IT sector could create as many as a million new jobs by 2020. Who is going to fill them?
The Coalition government has actively encouraged the growth of apprenticeships. Some IT companies have signed up to promote apprenticeships, and the most enthusiastic of them have put together a set of standards to ensure quality training for apprentices in key technology and digital roles.
All the basics are in place – it just needs more employers to sign up.
So far, it’s been IT suppliers taking the lead in digital apprenticeships – but surely it is time for CIOs to step up too. Look around your IT team – how many young people are there? Is there a focus on bringing in new blood and developing them – or do you always look for a finished product every time?
We need a change in culture in IT departments to promote training and development, and to be able to bring in young people and help them contribute to corporate IT. Miliband was right to point a finger at IT – it is time IT employers stepped up and turned more to graduates and apprentices to fill the jobs for today and tomorrow.
So Scotland is not going it alone – and in all probability the whole of the UK will be better for that decision.
The independence drive engaged voters in Scotland like never before, and also revealed the deep dissatisfaction across the rest of the UK with the status quo of Westminster politics.
It now looks likely that not only Scotland, but also Wales, Northern Ireland and the English cities and regions will get some form of greater devolution and more local powers. The details are yet to be worked out, but one thing is for sure – any such moves present a once in a lifetime opportunity to speed the switch to more digital public services.
From an IT perspective, there are two conclusions you can draw regarding greater devolution. First, it would be a calamity to try to adapt existing, clunky old government IT systems in Whitehall or in local authorities to support devolved powers. Those systems are so fixed and inflexible that the cost and effort would be a waste of time.
Second, that devolved powers cannot mean an extra layer of IT bureaucracy sitting between Whitehall and councils. There will no doubt be a knee-jerk desire to simply put a new front-end on to existing systems to give the appearance of more local autonomy. This would rapidly become an exemplar of the old cliché, putting lipstick on a pig.
Devolved powers are instead the ideal opportunity for what has become known as government as a platform. Each devolved authority will have a large number of common requirements – making and receiving payments, booking appointments, managing resources, purchasing and invoicing, and so on.
Currently, those functions are performed repeatedly in Whitehall and town halls in isolation, using siloed and usually proprietary systems, with little or no data sharing.
In a new devolved arrangement, why waste the time and money going through repeated procurement exercises to buy numerous incompatible and closed systems. This is instead a time for the public sector IT and digital community to come together and develop standardised platforms for these generic functions, made available as open source code for any authority to use.
Every devolved authority can then build the local, personalised extras they need, on top of those standard platforms. By using common data formats and open standards, greater information sharing will enable new services designed to make citizens’ lives easier. Moving home? Just click a button to transfer all your details to your new local authority.
Politicians benefit too – with more measurable, transparent services, lower costs, and greater policy-making flexibility.
The new impetus for change across the public sector presents an opportunity that digital government leaders must grasp.