Raising the bar on public sector IT

Government departments are under ever-increasing pressure to enhance the relationship between members of the public and state by delivering improved services and more open governance.

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Since the fundamental dynamic of government is to continuously improve relationships between different societal groups and to implement policy which reflects these improvements, the ICT infrastructure which supports these advancements needs to constantly evolve.

Ever-more complex ICT systems are necessary if government is to achieve its stated aims.

A staggering £16 billion per year is currently spent on public sector ICT, with a further spend of £105 billion planned for the next five years, according to the Database State report, written by information systems experts Ross Anderson, Ian Brown, Terri Dowty, Philip Inglesant, William Heath and Angela Sasse from the Foundation for Information Policy Research.

There are many reasons why ICT places such high demand on public sector spending, but one example of just how big a job government faces in modernising its ICT infrastructure can be seen in the databases recently inherited by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA). The new body took ownership of more than 500 databases from its predecessor agencies, which it must now consolidate into just 60 within the next five years.

Despite the traditionally risk-averse nature of the public sector, the sheer magnitude of necessary ICT projects undertaken has led to many high profile failures, including the delays to the marking of SAT tests, and more recently the failed delivery of student grants.

Since no government agency wants the stigma associated with the failure of large-scale projects, it is clear that more needs to be done to increase the success rate of much-needed public sector ICT initiatives.

Speaking at the Government UK IT Summit in 2007, Joe Harley, CIO at the Department for Work and Pensions, said: "Today, only 30 percent of our projects and programmes are successful."

Government has struggled to reignite support for and faith in subsequent ICT projects. Consequently, confidence in the Government's ability to successfully deliver more complex projects in the future is at a low.

To attempt to address these concerns, public sector CIOs and suppliers have signed up to an ambitious series of targets, including an increase in the success rate of ICT projects to 90 percent by 2010/11.

Looking to the private sector

There are many examples of successful large-scale private sector ICT projects, from which public sector CIOs can learn. Large corporates wield similar levels of aggregated ICT purchasing power and influence as government departments, and private sector CIOs frequently handle major ICT overhauls brought on by organisational change, such as mergers, takeovers and asset disposals.

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