Magazine article Public Finance

All Systems Go?

Magazine article Public Finance

All Systems Go?

Article excerpt

We might not know in detail what this year's Comprehensive Spending Review will bring, but we can be pretty sure of the big picture. It is one of public administration being based on fewer and bigger IT systems shared between departments, agencies, other public bodies and the third sector.

Ian Watmore, permanent secretary at the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit and author of the Transformational Government IT strategy, says that a reading of the submissions so far to the CSR gives a pretty good steer on the big themes. 'We are all going to have to work together,' he told a conference on shared services last month. Under Gordon Brown's premiership, 'virtually everything will have a cross-cutting nature'.

Shared services would in turn support three big transformations, Watmore said: empowered citizens (the choice' agenda); outcome-driven policies, including efficiencies; and 'positive feedback loops', where the newly joined-up services create efficiencies which in turn lead to more satisfied citizens and happier (though presumably fewer in number) staff.

This agenda will hold few surprises for anyone familiar with Sir David Varney's review, Service transformation, published by the Treasury last December, and the Building on progress paper, published by the PM's Strategy Unit this spring.

Achieving it, however, will be a significant challenge. It relies on a realignment of IT systems that in some ways is more radical than the rush towards e-government launched by Tony Blair at his 'e-summit' in 2002. And, unlike that initiative, which created electronic routes to almost all public services as well as the NHS National Programme for IT, the next revolution will have to be self-funding. In theory, this will come by culling the surplus in the government's IT inventory. Varney says that rationalising government websites alone could release £400m over three years.

Varney and Watmore both stress that rationalisation is a worthwhile end in itself - in theory, fewer IT systems mean a more joined-up service for government's customers. The danger is that rationalisation driven by demands for short-term savings might imperil strategic change.

Some experts warn that ill-thought-through cuts are already happening. John Fotheringham, partner at consultancy Deloitte, says: 'Some are doing it elegantly, in other departments it is a knee-jerk reaction.' In particular, there is so far little progress towards Varney's central idea - that public bodies stop insisting on creating their own data about citizens and start trusting other departments' databases.

The temptation to make short-term savings is strong. Today, according to the Cabinet Office's Transformational Government annual report, the government spends around £14bn a year on IT projects and operations.

Roughly speaking, public agencies have three options for reducing their IT inventories.

First, and least painful, they can cancel planned procurements of new systems. On a programme level, there have been several high-profile cancellations in the past few years, including the Citizen Information Project (the Treasury-inspired scheme to create a master register of the population); the Lorry Road User Charge (conceived to neutralise the fuel tax advantage enjoyed by foreign hauliers on British roads) and, late last year, a proposed separate national identity register to support the identity card.

Of these three, only the lorry charge had moved to the formal procurement stage before, to the fury of bidders, it was subsumed into the overall road-pricing programme.

This month, the Department for Communities and Local Government found another easy victim when it cancelled a long-discussed plan to create a single, accurate database of postal addresses capable of being shared across government The National Spatial Address Infrastructure has been the subject of two years' wrangling over intellectual property between the mapping agency Ordnance Survey, Royal Mail and local authorities, which have statutory duties to create addresses and would have been the systems major user. …

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