When the UK Cabinet Office announced back in December 2003 that it was planning to axe the position of e-envoy and replace it with a "Chief CIO" role for government, the applause was almost audible.
It was no so much that the e-envoy's missionary role for IT had been unsuccessful. Rather, it was painfully clear that public sector IT projects were suffering from a failure of direction and leadership. With project failures common, little shared best practice, and no real overall strategy, the UK Government's IT – to use its own phrase – was not joined up.
The applause, however, was muted by some organisational concerns. Without direct line-management control over some 30 heads of IT in government, or over their spending, how would the new CIO for the UK Government exercise his influence and power? And with the job carrying a salary lower than many equivalent private sector jobs, would the post attract someone of sufficient calibre?
Some four months into the job, the first post holder, Ian Watmore, CIO for the UK Government and head of the e-Government Unit, has begun to answer some of these questions with a series of initiatives aimed at improving the performance of government IT. And so far, he has done so without alienating colleagues in IT, or the wary stakeholders involved in government projects.
Watmore first of all dispels any concerns about his ability to make an impact. Recruited from his highly paid position as UK MD for Accenture, the systems integrator and consultancy, Watmore says he was attracted to the post by the challenge – the opportunity to make a difference through major organisational change.
To measure this, he has set himself a series of qualitative metrics over the next four years, covering, for example, the ability of government IT to effectively deliver programmes of change, the creation of a strategic framework, and a community of professionals to deliver it.
He is not, however, promising an end to IT project failures in government – only that he can reduce their likelihood.
How? One area is effective sharing of best practice. "My job is to find out what we could collectively do better, or identify what we can do once on behalf of us all."
This calls for unprecedented information sharing and co-operation between IT managers. Watmore does not directly manage other government CIOs, but he asks them to get together, to "speak out in front of peers" and to build a common agenda. These managers, he says, will feel stronger if their peers back what they do.
Watmore is also building a network of Permanent Secretaries across government: "In extremis, I have a channel, and they to me, if there are problems we can't resolve." Permanent Secretaries, he notes, know that they depend on IT for their departments' success, and will welcome extra advice and information.
The meeting of the first "CIO Council" took place in early January 2005 and the issue of project failure was high on the agenda. IT managers clearly felt that the business end of government shares the blame for the failures by introducing too much too fast. Watmore wants to advise government on the IT feasibility of policy changes before timetables are announced.
Also, the e-Government unit will recruit a team of "heavy hitter" project managers and IT professionals, to address problems before they become critical. Watmore is thinking further ahead, and plans to publish a three to five year IT strategy document in Autumn 2005 (see box).
All this, Watmore hopes, will end the government's reputation for doing IT badly, which he thinks is only occasionally deserved. Government projects, he stresses, are usually larger and more intensively scrutinized than the private sector projects to which they are compared.