After this blog piece on the farewell party of John Suffolk, "William" posted a comment that said Suffolk should have achieved more in his five years as government CIO.
Some will agree. I don’t. It’s worth pointing out what Suffolk has achieved.
Press officers versus having someone who tells it like is
At the last count, in 2009, the government had about 372 press officers, a jump of 92% since 1995. A separate estimate puts the number of press officers in national government in the thousands.
These officials may all be personable and hard-working. Much of their output is in praise of government, or in defence of what it does. It is rare for anyone senior in government to tell it exactly like it is. Even ministers, who’ve been prone to splenetic outbursts against waste in their first few months of office, will soon become embedded in the system, reluctant to criticise the government machine too strongly in case their words land obliquely on civil servants they have come to like and respect.
Suffolk not the archetypal civil servant. He has broken free of the system. He is not known for bending his knee to custom. He has spoken with force and consistency inside and outside of government about the wasted billions on public sector IT.
He has spoken publicly about the need for pervasive change, for departments and other public bodies to avoid duplicating activities. He has spoken about the need to end the domination of government IT by the big IT suppliers, the top 12 of which have 60% of the total IT spend. He has been the civil service's most senior advocate of open source software; and he says that thousands of data centres are unnecessary. Standardise, simplify and commoditise has been his maxim.
It’s too easy to attack his inability to act
It’s easy to knock all that; to criticise Suffolk for not enforcing his will, and for concentrating too much on IT infrastructure rather than changing the way government works.
But, as Suffolk says, the government CIO and even ministers have only limited powers to order public servants to standardise and simplify. Heads of departments have their own budgets and are accountable to Parliament for them. They can wave aside anything Suffolk says. It’s not Suffolk’s fault he cannot act.
So much for the coalition’s promise to strengthen CIO’s role
The coalition said it was going to strengthen the CIO’s role. It hasn’t. It may even abolish his role.
[This article continues on Monday]