26 January 2012

The Public Administration Select Committee today reported on the government's progress in implementing its ICT strategy. The overall tone was positive but there was a strong plea for government to make use of external expertise to ensure that departments can benchmark their IT costs against each other and the wider IT community.

The call is certainly justified. Without high quality data on what departments are delivering and for how much it will be impossible to know whether Government’s ICT strategy is making any difference and few in the commentariat will be reassured that government has put behind it the calamities of the past.

Fortunately, there are examples from which the UK can learn should it want to up its game and demonstrate improvement. Yesterday, the Australian Government released its ICT expenditure report. The detailed department by department data on which it is based provides insight on various splits of expenditure, including splits between hardware, software, outsourced and in-house expenditure and splits of expenditure by ‘service tower’, which allows the Australian Government to report that “the Applications area accounts for over a third of ICT expenditure”. The data even shows ‘the increase in Unix-based services”. Headcount information is provided, split by area of activity, and the overall experience of reviewing the neat spreadsheets provides a sense of reassurance. Australia is not an isolated example of success in this area. The new U.S. IT dashboard arguably has still more bells and whistles, with snappy graphics to tell the story of IT efficiency.

The difference in quality between the Australian and U.S. data and the Cabinet Office’s latest offering is alarming. Some of the data the Cabinet Office presents shows such stark discrepancies between departmental costs for procuring “desktops” that it is hard to know whether citizens would want the data to be accurate (in which case buying practices are truly out of control) or inaccurate (the more probable answer). Certainly a justification for PASCs concern, and that of the expert witnesses they called. As Sir Ian Magee of the Institute for Government who gave evidence to PASC put it “piecing a story together from the Cabinet Office is a challenge, to say the least”.

Thanks to video conferencing technology (I am reliably informed there is some sitting in the UK Treasury, among other places), understanding how Australia and the U.S. went about creating their cross-government data repositories should simply require a few virtual meetings. But adopting this approach may be harder. Government’s ICT Strategy represents a bold attempt to improve cross-departmental co-ordination in addressing ICT challenges but the UK government’s track record on standardising cross-government reporting processes is not particularly strong. What’s more, as the Institute for Government has argued elsewhere, it’s not clear that the current CIO leadership will have either the mandate or resources to act easily. Strong leadership will be required in addition to those Skype calls.

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