A view on the Public Accounts Committee report on ICT in Government

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) have just published their report on ICT in Government. For me it was  ...well  ...conventional. I have watched many of the hearings of the committee (like this one) and have spoken to some of the people who were involved. Clearly the committee took its job seriously, covered the territory ably and delivered a well-argued report; but I feel the report could have achieved much more. And this is because I believe the causes of the problems in government ICT are deeply, deeply systemic and not really to do with policy, process and structure; upon which, it seems to me, the report mostly focuses.

The words of the (apocryphal) Zen master ring in my ears: "Ah! Grasshopper. Instructions for getting out of box. Are written... on outside of box." I think that the report was written from inside the box.

I have copied the nine recommendations of the report below and, for each, I have chosen an aspect and explained how it might be looked at differently. My intent is to spur discussion about the 'box' and the sort of things that might be written on its outside (rather than to respond rigorously to the recommendations).

So, from the top...


"1- We welcome the direction and principles of the Government's new strategy for ICT (the Strategy), but it is very ambitious and short on detail about how it will be delivered. There is a long way to go before government can say it is living up to its claim that there is "no such thing as an IT project". This can only be achieved when ICT is embedded in departments' business and government reform programmes have ICT at the core - key objectives of the new Strategy. The following recommendations are intended to help Cabinet Office's Efficiency and Reform Group (ERG) to tackle some of the challenges that lie ahead."

I think the new Government ICT Strategy is a very positive step in the right direction, but I do feel concerned that it really doesn't address, either in principle or detail, the management of change to culture, behaviour and ways of thinking that will be necessary for it to make it the success it can be. Whilst the proposals in the strategy make a great deal of sense, it is not sufficient just to make changes in policy, process and structure and trust that the deeper, more systemic, changes will naturally follow.  I am inclined to agree with the PAC that it will be some time before the IT project is behind us.  After some encouraging questioning during the evidence sessions, I guess I had hoped that the PAC would have put more emphasis on these aspects in its report.


"2 - The Strategy lacks a baseline or metrics to measure progress. Simply listing actions to be achieved within two years is not sufficient. The Strategy implementation plan, due to be published in August 2011, should include a small number of measurable business outcomes, or direct indicators, to enable government and this Committee to evaluate success and whether the Strategy is delivering value for money."

There is a deep-grained, almost unquestioned, culture of using targets to control performance. I believe that, often, targets drive target-meeting behaviours rather than performance-improving ones and, particularly in circumstances like these, are just not useful. Measuring, on the other hand, is crucial; but it must be used in the spirit of learning and developing rather than explicitly for controlling (on which there is more in this 3 minute video). I would like the Efficiency and Reform Group (ERG) to take a careful look at the current culture of target-setting and the effect it is having on performance - perhaps using the ideas of Systems Thinking.


"3 - The Strategy cannot be delivered by the Cabinet Office alone - its successful implementation relies on its new principles being adopted across the government ICT and supplier communities, Chief Information Officers and by policy makers in the wider civil service. The Strategy envisages a small but powerful capability in the ERG, which can control and intervene in departments' projects. To be effective and successfully deliver its strategy for ICT and major projects, ERG should use its new powers selectively and be able to demonstrate that it has achieved buy-in from departments and suppliers."

Here, I'm going to be fussy about words (because they signpost culture and behaviour).  Let me pick on: 'Buy-in' and 'Deliver'...

Implicit in the term 'Buy-in' is that something is first, decided by one group of people and then, subsequently, 'sold' to another group; and this is just not a great model for helping folks feel involved and empowered. If people are going to play an important part in achieving something then they must be, and feel, involved from the beginning. Just using terms like this creates the wrong dynamic. Rather than cautioning about not achieving buy-in the PAC should be encouraging more-open, more-inclusive behaviours.

I don't go much on the word 'Deliver' either: it's too transactional. I know it has a number of usages but I just can't get the 'deliver a parcel' sense out of my head: something neatly packaged then sent to a recipient at a specific time. Managing change is just not about this. I feel we need to adopt new, more useful metaphors (and the language that goes with them). For example: we talk much about building new capabilities: but how about evolving them instead; see  Managing change - think 'Organism' not 'Mechanism'?

The words we use have an enormous impact on those around us. Changing them can change minds.


"4 - ICT-enabled projects have been too big, too long and too ambitious and we welcome the move to shorter, more iterative projects. ERG is introducing 'starting gate reviews' for new ICT projects to test whether projects are small enough and deliverable. It should publish its 'starting gate reviews' and other significant reviews carried out over the life of the project."

I agree that having appropriate governance steps like 'starting gate reviews' may be useful but there is a mighty, trumpeting elephant of culture in the room. Political ambition itself. Politicians and very senior managers are naturally highly demanding, building-leaping ignorers of the word 'No'. This ambition must be tempered: very senior folks need a better feel for what is possible with IT and what's not.


"5 - Value for money in ICT procurement relies on a mixed market of suppliers. The Strategy includes an aspiration to open up the government ICT market to small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). ERG now needs to set out what the Government will do to encourage more involvement by SMEs, and how it will measure success."

Being in small company myself, my tail wags at the idea of the SME greyhounds being given proper sight of the government IT rabbit. But it will not be easy to open the market to SMEs. The culture (that word again) of SMEs is markedly different to the, now familiar, systems integrators. To get benefit from working with SMEs Government will need to bend, in perhaps significant ways; and people will need to behave differently. This is new territory: time should be taken to experiment and find out what approaches flourish. The useful approaches should be developed - incrementally - in much the same way the strategy proposes IT be developed. And this may take years. Forcing the use of SMEs by setting targets would almost certainly go wrong.


"6 - The Government plans to move more public services online and, rightly, to stress the importance of designing services around the needs of the user. However, approximately nine million people have never used the Internet, and they must not be excluded. ERG and other relevant departments should withhold sign-off of additional online services until they are satisfied that the service is designed for users. ERG should also continue to ensure that online services are accessible through libraries, post offices or other alternative means. When new services are launched, these alternatives should be well publicised.2

Whilst a check that services are fit for purpose before they are launched obviously makes sense, I think that the PAC (not necessarily in this recommendation) miss an important point. The effective design of services around the user requires very substantial change; change that can't be made by feeding new policy into the old machine. Government will need to reshape (and that's not 'reorganise') itself dramatically - perhaps using ideas like Lean - and, to do that, it will need to foster new behaviours; like being more open, being naturally collaborative and being more entrepreneurial. The ERG should attend explicitly to nurturing such new behaviours.


"7 - The Strategy only makes one reference to cyber-security. This is particularly concerning given the move to more government services online. The Government has committed to increase the use of new technologies and sharing of information, which rely on the Internet. ERG should clarify in its implementation plan how cyber-security will be integrated into its strategy for ICT."

Instinctively I believe that cyber-security will rest as much on changing human behaviours as it will on technology and policy. The recent House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report on Behaviour Change is refreshing and, whilst not specific to cyber-security, has ideas the ERG may find useful. My message is the same: dig down to the underpinning behaviours.


"8 - Government has not yet assessed the number of ICT people it has or the capacity and skills it will need in the future. In preparing its Capability Strategy for ICT, ERG should establish the size and capability of the existing government ICT workforce, including the number of cyber-security professionals, and build a model to help predict future demand."

I am sure it may help to have some assessment of the likely demand for skilled people, but the real problem is attracting and retaining them. See this from the Director of GCHQ reported in the Intelligence and Security Committee Annual Report...

I need some real internet whizzes in order to do cyber and I am not even sure they are even on the contractor market, so I need to work on that. They will be working for Microsoft or Google or Amazon or whoever. And I can’t compete with their salaries; I can offer them a fantastic mission, but I can’t compete with their salaries.

It's quite simple: if government wants more talent, then it must be able pay the market rate for the people it needs and then provide them with hugely satisfying work in an affirming, supportive environment so that they stay around. This will be far cheaper and, in most cases, better than hiring long-term contractors. If this means paying specialists (sometimes considerably) more than their managers, so be it. There's a real cultural hump to be got over here.


"9 - There are no proposals in the Strategy to address the longstanding problems of high turnover of Senior Responsible Owners (SROs), their lack of experience and their lack of accountability. While we recognise that shorter, more manageably-sized projects will help, the ERG should make proposals to keep SROs in post for longer where possible, and raise and maintain their level of skills, in line with the Government's advice on accountability. The identity of SROs should be available on departmental websites, along with their dates of appointment."

The issues of length of tenure and the skills of SROs have have been identified and, it seems, tackled quite seriously before (see the Lessons Learned - SRO Role and Building the SRO role - Sir Gus O'Donnell). Doing more of the same is unlikely to be successful.

That said, there's no doubting the wisdom in making able people, with the right set of talents, responsible for important projects. It's important these folk have priority and time so that they can roll up their sleeves and be more than a cog in a governance gear-train. I think the key is to find ways to make these senior roles become sought after by the brightest and best. The people in them should feel that the reward, however provided, is worth the risk of taking these jobs on.  This means looking at how the careers of SCS are managed and perhaps, following on from my comments on the previous recommendation, how they are paid. More cultural humps.

In one sentence...

The Government's new ICT Strategy is a good thing; but I feel it is crucial that the ERG put more emphasis on managing the cultural and behavioural change aspects.

I think I have finished.

Does this strike a chord: is Government IT in the Zen master's box? Perhaps you think all this is pie-in-sky idealism? Or maybe it makes no sense at all? Let me know.

Note - An Honourable Mention I would like to make an honourable mention of Ian Swayles MP, a member of the committee, who asked this question during one of the evidence sessions...

I am not sure that the strategy is technically ambitious. What it is ambitious about is the approach to people. We all know that most IT projects fail because of people, not because of technology. I suppose that my point is really that the strategy is ambitious in terms of changing the behaviours of tens of thousands of people inside Government, the behaviours of thousands of suppliers and indeed, as you said, the behaviours of Ministers and other people involved in making policy and so on. Are we equipped to get that amount of behaviour and culture change, as opposed to simply changing the technology that sits underneath it?

See Q75 on page 28 of the report to find out how it was answered.