IT has huge potential to improve our lives. We all benefit from the fruits of the digital revolution through which we are now living. Communication, shopping, banking, navigation etc. have all delivered tangible benefits which we would now struggle to live without. However, over the past 15 years there have been a succession of expensive and high profile IT projects that have failed. Public sector IT failures are particularly visible. For those of us who work in IT this is particularly depressing. We see many of the problems from the inside and have ideas about what can be done but are struggling inside a structure which is not ideal. This is why the excellent Public Administration Select Committee report Government and IT – “a recipe for rip-offs”: time for a new approach is such an encouraging read.
The key points from the report that resonated with my experience were:
I have always felt that the quality of software is dependent upon the quality of the relationship between the user and the developer. Programming is more than sitting at a screen all day it is also about talking to people about what they want. One the reasons I have been drawn into IT is the fact that it is a great leveller. Good IT should empower people. Delegating control is one of the reasons web 2.0 has been so empowering and successful. Youtube, Facebook, Wikipedia, Amazon and a host of others are successful because they delegate control, or an element of control, to the user. Government systems need to do the same. This will present many challenges to government, local authorities, education, health and social services but it must become a primary aim of IT strategy. It may be that the successful exploitation of digital technologies in the 21st century will require changes to the “hierarchical nature of civil service management structures” (p29 para 85) where workers and users are credited with more capability and autonomy. This may require new organisational structures based upon the concept of knowledge workers and informed citizens rather than the highly stratified organisational structures that are the norm today in the public sector. IT should be empowering for both the individual and the agencies that deliver our services. Perhaps it can become the catalyst for change within our public organisations rather than a symbol of expensive mistakes. Government Select Committee reports may not be everyone’s preferred bedtime reading but this one struck me as being founded in the reality I have seen during my career.
You can read the full report at
Martin Sepion is a Senior Adviser at JISC RSC London