Yes, Minister

March 30, 2011

{i}Sir Humphrey looked enormously pleased. ‘I am so delighted that this new Government ICT Strategy is going to encourage greater transparency, Minister. I have long advocated the importance of the public having greater access to our decision-making process and being made aware of any failures that there may be within the Department. If the press use that information to criticise and blame you personally, Minister, I am sure that you will agree that is a price worth paying. You have nothing to hide – at least not at this stage, so soon after the election.’

Sir Humphrey ignored the attempted intervention from the Minister and went on, still sunny and smiling. ‘And the encouragement of open source is especially pleasing. Why do we have to stick to these old tried and tested technologies that everyone knows work when we can experiment with these more radical solutions. After all, it will be nice to see people in beards and sandals at presentations instead of the usual sharp-suited men from the oligopoly that one sees so often at Covent Garden and Wimbledon. Of course we will, as Francis Maude suggests, need a team to “educate, promote and facilitate the technical and cultural change needed” – we may need quite a large team in this department, perhaps reporting directly to me so I can encourage them directly and reinforce the agility of the projects. Certainly we need our own team – we don’t want the wrong sort of cultural change.’

The Minister felt bound to assert his authority and rose from his chair, but Sir Humphrey carried on, still smiling: ‘And I do think it is important that we share any lessons that we learn across departments and beyond. It is so important that we do not get involved in petty points scoring just to improve our standing with the PM.’

The Minister sat down and had a long think. Perhaps he might have to curb Sir Humphrey’s enthusiasm for these new policies.{/i}

I don’t want to seem like a tired old cynic. (I would rather you didn’t know the truth.) The {Government ICT Strategy:} is impressive and full of good ideas, many of which will have a very speedy impact on those IT lawyers engaged in public procurement work or advising IT companies with any ambitions to supply local or national government. Public servants involved in ICT are overwhelmingly bright and aware – and many are prepared to innovate and lead their departments into rewarding IT projects. But, while the civil service Sir Humphreys and local government jobsworths are few and far between, the civil service and public service is risk averse. Indeed, the civil service higher echelons are so risk averse that their children are not even allowed to play the board game. But the aversion to risk is not the preserve of hide-bound individuals or capable of being addressed by cultural change, it is a structural inevitability given our press and our layers of government. Can the foundations of the ICT Strategy really be built in a risk averse environment?

It will certainly take a lot of pushing from the very top – Francis Maude and the Prime Minister – to make it all happen. It is not impossible. Listening to Mark O’Conor’s presentation in the {cloud computing podcast:} elsewhere on the web site gave me hope – and {Barry Jennings piece:} shows that there is dynamism in the public services. But when push comes to shove, and when there are bodies to hide, will transparency and innovation really rule?