Being a journalist I get invited to all sorts of jamborees, and recently I went along to the annual UK government IT conference. Tradition has it that after 20 minutes, two thirds of the invited media are asleep, and the other third are outside throwing inedible biscuits to pigeons. This year, however, was supposed to be different because we were promised something rather special.
It turned out to be a video clip from the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, his lopsided smile looking badly stuck-on, his teeth as dazzling as an iceberg. He started out by commending civil service computer types for their ‘commitment to providing the public with the very best’. It was an odd thing to say. It was one of those quotes where we learnt a great deal and absolutely zero at the same time, and almost nothing pertinent to IT.
The PM proceeded to give us the "bluffers guide" to what IT in Government is all about and described how John Suffolk, the government's chief information officer, is going about improving the government's reputation for managing IT projects.
The centerpiece of the come-back is the creation of a government IT profession. The problem is that, government IT in Britain is a national joke since so much of the nation’s data went missing, or was stolen.
The recent string of data breaches are merely another symptom of a long-standing ailment: the inability of government departments to oversee IT projects properly. Back in 2001 a Forrester Research report claimed that ‘All government agencies suffer from gaps in knowledge and understanding, and the inability to implement innovative services is holding the government back.’
Changing attitudes is going to take a long time. Brown’s new fast-stream recruitment of IT specialists is only in its second year. It will take a decade or more for these bright young things to rise to positions of influence. It will take even longer for the government IT profession to establish status and self-confidence. What a pity that lesson wasn’t learned seven years ago.
It was with some sense of the inevitable that, on the day of Brown’s message, the government's flagship e-service fell over once again. Thousands of people trying to file their self-assessment tax returns that day were greeted with the message that ‘some customers may be experiencing problems’.