THE UK public sector will fork out euros 21 billion (pounds 14bn) on IT this year, according to Kable, which researches government spending on computers. That is almost a quarter of the entire EU spend and some 40 per cent higher than the total for France or Germany, although some smaller countries match the UK in terms of spending per head or as a ratio of GDP.
Is that a matter for rejoicing or disquiet? You would not expect Ian Watmore, the government's chief information officer and head of e-government, to say the latter before his appointment last September, he was managing director of UK Accenture, which spends its time selling IT services to large organisations, of which the government is just one.
But that's the point. Relaxed, confident and informal, Watmore, 50, is every inch not the traditional civil servant, and every inch what the government would like the 'new' civil servant to be: professional, private-sector trained, able to fuse the discourses of the market and service delivery into the same apparently ideology-free language of efficiency and value for money.
Thus he downplays the differences between working in the public and private sectors. 'The differences are overhyped,' he says. 'In any big organisation there are a few roles that need to operate across boundaries. My job is to try to influence people across the structures of Whitehall to work together in the joint interest.'
Beyond that, it is also to 'professionalise' government IT. This is a key point. The government is banking heavily on IT, both to transform public services and to deliver pounds 12.5bn in efficiency gains. And, as the Kable figures show, it is spending far more on external support such as consultancy and outsourcing compar- atively than, say, France and Germany, and far more than it did itself 10 years ago. Predictably, Watmore makes no apologies for the emphasis on outsourcing: 'I don't believe, in general, that government should employ people to do work the marketplace does better, and that's increasingly the case for IT worldwide. You can't turn the clock back - government IT is in the hands of the market.'
However, he concedes there are implementation issues. There is much evidence that many, perhaps most, outsourcing deals fail to live up fully to expectations or are not flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances - unless they are very well managed.
'Where the government has neglected things is that it didn't think it needed strong IT professionals to handle the implementation side,' Watmore acknowledges. That capability inside government is very variable, he adds, and not always in the right place.
The agenda, then, 'is to build up the IT profession in government, so that you have people who can manage change enabled by IT from strategy to implementation. If you do that, you can get the best out of the marketplace. If you don't, the marketplace will not give you what you want, or costs will go up.' This is what the second wave of outsourcing, largely driven by the Gershon efficiency agenda, is all about.
To guide it, Watmore has convened a 'CIO Council' - a group of 30 government and wider public-sector IT executives charged with drawing up a government-wide strategy for how IT can deli- ver the government's business requirements. This means 'identifying customer needs, linking them with the political and social agenda, and joining up behind that'. (Among other items discussed by the council is the setting up of an IT academy to establish common skills standards for the estimated 30,000 IT workers in the public sector.)
Watmore insists that at any one time there are hundreds of service-related IT projects on the go, most of them progressing well?: 'But impressions are driven by the big-ticket items - the Child Support Agency, the NHS, identity cards and defence infrastructure. What the media and parliament mean when they say government does it badly is that it does big projects badly. Actually, I think it does pretty well, given the size.'
Big projects, he says, really are harder, partly because of sheer size, using databases six to 10 times greater than the largest in the private sector. At the same time, the real prize is not so much in discrete initiatives as in joining them up. That increases the number of dimensions the arguments have to be won on, and also the stakes.
It is also the case, paradoxically, that although the IT may be necessary to capture the benefits of improvement, it is not in itself the important thing. The important thing is to improve the processes in the first place.
This is particularly true of the NHS, where a hugely complicated infrastructure combined with gross underinvestment for decades means that an awful lot of change is going on at once.
At heart, says Watmore, the NHS programme, as in many of the other big projects, is as much about transforming the way it manages itself as about the IT as such - but when things go wrong, it's the technology which is invariably blamed. Although there was an unwelcome reminder last week of the pitfalls when one of the regional NHS IT consortia sacked a software supplier, Watmore is encouraged by recent signs: 'We've implemented enough real stuff on the ground to sense that it's doable. Now that the medical and professional community have something to use, they're beginning to talk positively about it.'
When Watmore's contract runs out in August 2008, he would like to leave his successor with a situation 'where IT is seen as a help to government rather than a hindrance, as now'. In other words, where high spending on IT is unequivocally a matter for rejoicing.
We are not there yet and some sceptics would argue that until ministers modify their one-dimensional, specification-driven approach to performance management in the public sector, the necessary prior process improvement will never happen.
Watmore, however, is an optimist. 'It's a fantastically interesting time,' he says. 'We have new energy and a new parliamentary cycle. The groundwork has been done. And I'm working with some brilliant people: not good - really good. For once, the stars are in alignment.'
The Observer, 12 June 2005