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Government IT strategy says little, offends no one

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Consultation over the government IT strategy was rumoured last month to have been a little lacklustre. Was nobody interested in having their say on such a contentious subject as mending the public sector's broken record on IT?

Three months after consultation opened and just a day before it closes, there are signs that responses are being hurried together. Whether they will be worth reading when the eGovernment Unit publishes them next month is another thing.

The problem for the consultation is the strategy document itself. The strategy was published in November as the culmination of 18 months' work as head of the eGovernment Unit by Ian Watmore, a former management consultant.

The result was mostly harmless. Technology has become an integral means of running and delivering public services, the document says. It can also help government cut costs and jobs. Many existing systems need updating, more money needs to be spent, civil servants need more training, citizens ("customers") need more caring. This is all summed up in one superficial pun: "make IT better".

Any quarrelsome quarters of the public sector that might dislike the strategy's proposed increase in control from the centre, or its emphasis on restructuring government, have already been disarmed: the NHS, local authorities and education sectors have been promised their own versions of this strategy.

Ian Watmore did such a good job of sweet-talking his way through the job of eGovernment boss that he was quickly promoted to head the Prime Minister's delivery unit, a post that will be in strong need of his slick-suited ways and from which he will retain ultimate responsibility for his replacement downstairs.

Just how slick a job Watmore has done was illustrated by the ingratiating statement issued by the Society of IT Managers last month to mark his move.

"Well done Ian," it said. "We thought you were a lemon, we thought you wouldn't take a blind bit of notice of us fuddy lieutenants scraping our feet round our punched card computers down in local government, but 'we are delighted you proved us wrong'."

The society's consultation response will be only a little less supportive. "With a strategy as general as this, it's difficult to have any problems," says Adrian Hancock, the Socitm policy officer who is drawing it up.

Only an idealistic opposition could find any reason for serious criticism of this strategy and only then from a place so far removed from the apolitical job of building computer systems that it would look out of place in this consultation. Its solution to the government's IT woes is greater central government control, which is an irrelevant debate all the while the regions are devolved real power of their own.

Interestingly, one of the main points of Socitm's submission will be concern that the efforts of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to give local authorities the flexibility to focus on local priorities is not elbowed out by the IT strategy.

Industry should have some serious points of contention about this strategy, which treats suppliers as an afterthought, despite the thorny issues that have made their relations with government so uncomfortable in recent years.

But Intellect, the suppliers' trade association is staying schtum. That usually means it is not happy. It rarely has reason to be happy nowadays, but it appears to have kept well in line with the government's desire for important matters (like the way in which billions of pounds of public sector money are spent) to be discussed in private coteries.

The government IT strategy, incidentally, proposes that IT projects should come under greater scrutiny from the start. The word public is not mentioned in this context. It will be interesting to see what they make of it. ®

The government IT strategy is here.

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