Think-tank recommends appointment of IT minister
By Lucy Phillips
3 December 2009
Central government should be given more powers to intervene in large-scale public sector IT projects to avoid costly failures, according to a think-tank.
The Institute for Government called for a minister of state for IT to be appointed to avoid cross-departmental confusion over computer projects. It also said a new parliamentary select committee should be established to step in when the most risky ventures encounter problems.
The centralisation would avoid ‘waste, duplication and lack of cohesion across government’, helping to make Whitehall efficiency savings, according to the think-tank report, published on December 2. The government spends about £16bn a year on IT and has set a target of saving at least 20%, or £3.2bn.
Michael Hallsworth, a senior researcher at the Institute for Government and author of the report, told Public Finance: ‘The current set-up is not sufficient to tackle the issues where there is some controversy and where departments have competing priorities. For the really tough stuff it does not give enough hard power to the centre.
He added: ‘Currently departments have a lot of freedom to ignore advice even if it could save money and improve IT use.’
But while the report, which is based on interviews with senior civil servants, advocates more standardisation of IT use and procurement across Whitehall, the think-tank said individual departments should have flexibility in specific areas. ‘Where the need is pressing, the centre needs power to act swiftly and decisively but on the other hand it should not intervene in every aspect of IT,’ said Hallsworth.
The report, Installing new drivers: how to improve government’s use of IT, comes ahead of the government’s new five-year IT strategy, due to be published before Christmas. Details have already been leaked, revealing that Labour plans to save billions of pounds through greater use of social media and online ‘apps’, enabling civil servants to share more computer programmes.
Hallsworth said ministers needed to take into account governance and how the strategy was implemented, as well as cost savings. ‘It’s very easy to put forward ambition but you have to have a credible way of realising those ambitions,’ he said.
The Conservatives, who will be publishing their own public sector IT strategy imminently, criticised the government’s plans, saying they lacked ambition.