Gradually improving government

A strategy called ‘Transformational Government’ was always going to struggle to live up to its ambitious title. So it is proving. Despite January’s upbeat annual report arguing that considerable progress is being made on using information and communication technology (ICT) to improve public services, the picture remains more ‘Gradually Improving Government’ than ‘Transformational Government’.Where are the success stories?
But gradual improvement is quite an achievement. A doom-friendly press would have us believe that government and ICT simply do not mix. The truth is that much more information has been placed online, at the same time as there has been a useful reduction in the proliferation of government websites. Case studies of technology changing interactions with citizens now abound, from the Pensions Service, which has improved customer service and generated annual savings of £170 million, to the much maligned NHS, which is successfully using digital x-rays in some areas to ensure that appointments happen on time and with the full information.

Cultural shift
Nor should the impact of the Transformational Government strategy, published in November 2005, be underestimated. Its explicit move away from an ‘e-government’ agenda signifies an enormous cultural and philosophical shift. Instead of regarding ICT as the solution, the strategy emphasised that ICT is one of the ways of reaching a solution: an enabler of change, rather than an outcome in itself. The focus on customers, shared services and IT professionalism are all about public services doing more to make good use of ICT.

Small-scale stories
And yet despite all of this progress, ICT is still not really transforming government - even gradually. Too many of the examples of success are small-scale, as Sir David Varney commented in his review of Service Transformation in December 2006. Even disregarding the greater media interest in bad IT news stories, larger ICT projects have a less than impressive track record. The National Audit Office (NAO) review of common problems dogging ICT projects is just as relevant in 2007 as it was when it was compiled in 2003. Poor management – of project scopes, contracts, budgets, communication and people – is still the main reason that large ICT projects fail, time and again.

Technology and customer-focus
But ICT has, if anything, become more important since the publication of Transformational Government. Citizen expectations continue to rise, fuelled by progress in the private sector, whilst the public purse strings are set to be tightened once more in the Comprehensive Spending Review this summer. Technology is the only way that public services can become more customer-focused on the scale that is required and in a way that manages cost. Without ICT, the Gershon targets around transactional services, the back office and improving productive time of staff are hopelessly out of reach. Which makes it more and more urgent that public services do more to ensure that ICT is liberated from the confines of its ‘egovernment’ box and is used to help realise overall public service reform goals of higher quality, more customer focused, more efficient services.

Identify initial objectives
To do this, five key challenges need to be overcome. First, technology is far too frequently used to resolve a problem that is not business-led. Exciting new products and pressure to deliver highly visible change can encourage managers to get carried away and opt for sophisticated, cutting-edge technology, that does not always help them achieve their initial objective. There are many public sector ICT projects that continue to be answers looking for questions.

Recognising need for change
Second, too many of those involved in promoting use of ICT to achieve other objectives overlook the fact that many public sector employees do not buy the case for change. In the course of The Work Foundation’s independent research (supported by Adobe, the software and technology company), we spoke to 1000 members of the public, 500 frontline staff and 25 senior public sector managers. They made it abundantly clear that there is a need to make the case for ICT-related strategic change. The argument for using ICT is neither obvious, nor persuasive for many frontline staff. Nor can the implications that increased use of ICT has for the ways that work is organised or for skill requirements be ignored. If ICT is to be used more effectively by the public and by staff, there is a need for a clear dialogue about what people are trying to change and what the implications of ICT-enabled change are.

Over-complicate project scopes
Third, the sheer scale of different tasks that the public sector is being asked to deliver can drive despairing public sector managers to over-complicate project scopes. Under pressure, it is easy to become seduced by the idea that technology can solve all problems and can help them meet all their targets. Again and again, we came across managers repeatedly revising contract scopes to add in just one more function. Instead of trying to resolve one discrete issue, using ICT, projects can find themselves tied up trying to solve several complex organisational problems all at once. Yet trying to do too much increases the risk that no business benefits will be recouped from the investment at all, and that even the original objective will not be realised. The Farmers Payment Agency is, sadly, one example of this.

Pressure from all directions
Fourth, there is considerable pressure on public service managers to take risks when it comes to technology, despite the poor track record. The pressure is from all directions: media calls for faster and more visible results; political pressures to justify costs; external lack of awareness about the complexity of delivering these projects; internal expectations that ICT can solve any problem. They all add up to insistent forces that can drive managers to what one of our interviewees described as “reckless” behaviour. Desperate to meet their targets, managers can allow the project scopes to creep wider whilst moving deadlines closer and relying on innovative but untried and untested technology. Public sector failure to introduce stronger risk management processes, as well as protect managers from making pressured decisions, makes it much more likely that ICT projects will fail at considerable cost to the taxpayer and to the people who use the service.

Lack of team work
Finally, there continues to be little incentive for public service managers to work together across functions because of the way that funding and public service targets operate. Managers get rewarded for their own organisation working well, not for working with others. Resources can be difficult to share across organisational boundaries, whilst there can also be cultural barriers to making partnerships work. If shared services are to be a reality, these are challenges that need to be addressed by central government target and funding setters, as well as more locally. So what, one year on, should government be doing to realise its goal of Transformational Government?

Heart of service delivery
First, leadership is vital. There continues to be an urgent need for Ministers, Permanent Secretaries and Chief Executives to see this strategy as high priority, and to promote it as such. There is a persistent perception that ICT-enabled projects are the responsibility of IT Directors or simply an add-on to core business. This ignores the fact that ICT is only transformative if it is put at the heart of how services are delivered, rather than seen as a side issue. This attitude also ignores the consequences of failure, for example the impact on low-income families of their benefit not arriving because of ICT glitches. Leaders need to be very publicly clear that ICT matters, they need to be involved need to be very clear that ICT matters, they need to be involved in defining the business objectives of ICT-enabled projects, and they need to lead the communication, consultation and change strategies that these projects require. Transformational Government stands or falls based on these leaders’ support and engagement.

Business rather than technology
Second, expenditure for ICT-enabled projects should only be agreed where there is a clear business case. This means that projects have to focus on business, rather than technology, outcomes.  Desired benefits have to be clearly defined: if citizens and staff cannot see the case for the project, questions should be asked about whether the case is sufficiently robust.

Managing risks
Third, public sector organisations need to be supported in managing risks. Part of this will be encouraging a public conversation about the consequences of taking risks such as scope creep or using untested technologies. As one interviewee said, “Too often, people assume that because things are possible they are practical as well.” Those managers running ICT projects need to be able to pushback on the pressures surrounding them with examples of projects where the combination of expanding scopes, extra risks taken on and the pursuit of overly complex technologies have led to failure: the creation of new problems rather than solutions to existing ones.  This will not stop the pressures, but may support more focus on the factors that increase the likelihood of project failure.

Lessons can be learned
Fourth, all ICT-enabled projects should be piloted on a smaller scale before wide roll-out. Lessons should be learned from this experience – it should not just be a rubber-stamping exercise. User groups including citizens, staff, unions and other relevant stakeholders (e.g. private sector companies) should be closely involved to ensure the project is designed and evolves according to their needs.

Listen to experience
Fifth, there is a need to listen to staff. They are the ones who work with the public each day, the ones who use the systems. Public organisations need to be supported in understanding how to most effectively engage with employees to benefit from staff knowledge and to ensure that staff have the skills and support to use new technologies.

Be patient
Finally, there is a need to acknowledge that change takes time. Having said that currently it is more ‘Gradually Improving Government’ than ‘Transformational Government’ partly reflects how long it takes to make change happen. This is not to say that more could not be done: lessons could be learned much more quickly than is happening at present. But pressure should be taken off doing everything by tomorrow if projects are to be effective.

Use ICT wisely
Making ICT work to serve citizens is not just a matter of wires, keyboards and screens. It is about ensuring that ICT is used effectively to improve services and manage costs – and above all, this requires recognition from senior managers about the importance of ICT to transforming services. ICT has the potential to change lives for the better – but the public sector continues to be in danger of missing a trick if lessons from the past are not learned.

Alexandra Jones is associate director at The Work Foundation. She is the lead author of the Public Services and ICT series of reports. Her latest report ‘Where Next for Transformational Government’, supported by Adobe, is available - click here.

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