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Think tank urges more centralised IT

Gov IT failure seemingly down to insufficient meddling

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A new report says there should be more central coordination of the use of IT in government.

Shaping Up: A Whitehall for the Future, published by the centrist think tank the Institute of Government, suggests a central department – most likely through the Cabinet Office – could play a crucial facilitating and coordinating role in helping government use more IT more effectively.

"The centre is often best placed to tackle issues where the current use of IT inhibits government effectiveness," the report says in its section on IT capacity. "For example, to standardise the patchwork of systems that have grown up across central government, operating to different standards and frequently unable to talk to each other.

"This can seriously raise the transaction costs of joining up, since there is often no easy way for colleagues in different departments to share and jointly manage information."

It suggests a central body should be able to intervene when there is a strong case for more standardisation of IT systems or for specialisation. This should involve a selective approach that strikes a balance between giving departments the freedom to innovate while insisting on savings where there is compelling evidence.

But it acknowledges the problems of following such a course, with efforts to do so in recent years undermined by competing priorities and resistance in departments. While the Chief Information Officers' Council can develop strategy, it does not have the authority to enforce its decisions.

While there are few details of how this could be done, the report does include a recommendation for central commissioning budgets for corporate functions such as IT. This would provide support for one of its main recommendations: the appointment of ministers without portfolio to take charge of the delivery of cross-agency initiatives.

The report also suggests there is a case for increasing the authority of the cabinet secretary over the management of IT and human resources in Whitehall. It cites the informal powers of the post's holder over departmental permanent secretaries – notably in biannual appraisals that influence their pay – and says this could be formalised to clarify the relationship between the centre and departments.

This article was originally published at Kable.

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