Dear Prime Minister – leave tech spending alone

June 16, 2010

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-Steve Ranger is the editor of silicon.com. The opinions expressed are his own. Join Reuters for a live discussion with guests as Chancellor George Osborne makes  an emergency budget statement at 12:30 p.m. British time on Tuesday, June 22, 2010. -

There has never been a more important time for chief information officers to raise their profiles and make their worth clear – especially in the public sector, where over the next few years budgets will be under attack like never before.

We were particularly pleased that in this year’s silicon.com CIO50, an annual programme which celebrates the best technology chiefs in the UK, we saw more CIOs voting, and more CIOs being nominated to date.

This year’s winner was John Suffolk, the UK government CIO, who is in charge of setting the technology strategy for the entire public sector.

IT spending has been one of the first victims of the new government’s belt-tightening, with the coalition already having identified hundreds of millions in potential cuts from IT budgets across Whitehall, and put in place an immediate freeze on any new IT projects worth more than 1 million pounds.

The thinking probably runs something like this: government IT projects have had a tremendous track record of running late and over budget, and the last thing the UK needs now is more extremely expensive digital white elephants.

Many hundreds of millions of pounds have been wasted over the last two decades on IT projects that have failed to deliver the expected benefits. As the public sector spends more than 16 billion pounds per year on IT, there is also more than a sneaking suspicion that there must be some fat to trim in there.

And perhaps privately our axe-wielding politicians may be thinking that the public won’t notice or care about cut backs that affect techies or IT projects that appear to involve incomprehensibly complicated technology – such cuts would hardly provoke the same reaction as proposals to reduce the number of nurses or police officers, after all.

But while cutting back on IT might be considered less unpopular than slashing frontline services, political technophobia is not the best way to serve the UK in the long run.

‘Cutting IT spending’ may sound abstract and easy to do, but what it mostly means is cutting jobs. A big chunk of the cost of any project is the people doing the work – and these are highly skilled jobs that will be lost, just at a time when the UK should be boosting its investment in skills for the future.

Cutting IT spending is not as simple as switching off a light. Existing IT contracts can be expensive to break or renegotiate, thereby potentially negating any hoped-for savings.

Of course, projects that have run out of control or create little benefit should be cancelled.

But few IT projects are an end in themselves: take programmes to put government services online for example. Such schemes can save time and automate tasks that would otherwise occupy the time of those front line staff that the government is anxious to protect.

There is little point securing the jobs of nurses or police officers if their time is then wasted by inefficient systems that don’t support their needs.

While taking a decision to spend more on IT in order to create greater long-term savings may not be a popular move, it could well be one that the UK needs right now.

And it’s also worth bearing in mind that one of the main reasons that public sector IT projects fail is that the politicians change their mind about what they want from them half way through.

It is still too common for ministers to come up with grand projects which they expect to be delivered by IT, but which they then fatally undermine by changing the requirements because the political mood has changed.

And when the project comes in late, over budget and doesn’t do what it was meant to politicians are first in the queue to complain about the quality of IT in the public sector.

Perhaps the best way to ensure value of money is not to cut IT spending, but make sure that politicians set clear, deliverable objectives for IT – and then stay out of the way as much as possible.

You can view silicon.com’s full CIO50 report including which CIOs made the list here.

Picture credit: A Google search page is reflected in the eye of a computer user in Leicester, in this file picture. REUTERS/Darren Staples/Files

Comments

If it’s such a common occurrence, might a reasonable person not expect a competent architect to anticipate major changes in the specifications and to be able to cope with them?

In the private sector, one typically has to deal with such changes in priorities in the few hours between a major product announcement by a competitor and the first panicky phone call from a customer. At least in the public sector, such changes appear to tkae place over weeks or months.

Posted by IanKemmish | Report as abusive
 

Many government IT projects fail not because politicians interfere and ‘change their minds’ but because as projects get under-way it becomes clear that the original requirements were misunderstood, over complicated or badly defined.

Many grand IT schemes are often too big and bold to be successful as part of a single project and are frequently badly structured commercially because of bad procurement practices and inexperienced (or inappropriately experienced) Civil Servants.

Posted by AlisdairWilkes | Report as abusive
 
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