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Two cheers for government IT - on the way, but not there yet
Chris Chant leaves his role with a sideswipe at government IT but is he being too harsh on himself and his fellow CIOs?
Imagine if Private Eye poet EJ Thribb were to comment on the departing G-Cloud director, Chris Chant
So, farewell then, Chris Chant
You brought the Cloudstore to the public sector
But Keith's mum said that you could never buy anything in it
It's doubtful whether Thribb's efforts could do justice to Chant's attempts to change the sclerotic thinking at the heart of government. The launch of the government-run Cloudstore has been the first step in a dramatic process of change.
Chant isn't responsible for all of that, of course. Mike Bracken, the government's executive director for digital policy, has been driving change in the last year, calling for a more customer-centric approach and a higher degree of openness (in every sense of the word and credit must be given to cabinet office minister, Francis Maude who, when not making ill-judged remarks about petrol storage, has been a far-seeing advocate for a changing approach to IT.
However, Chant's own valedictory blog paints a rather different picture. He presents the picture of a job only half done and he highlights his own disappointments
"Real progress has been blocked by many things including an absence of capability in both departments and their suppliers, by a strong resistance to change, by the perverse incentives of contracts that mean its cheaper to pay service credits than to fix the problem and by an unwillingness to embrace the potential of newer and smaller players to offer status quo-busting ideas. CIOs across government, including me in various roles at the centre of government, have been guilty for too long of taking the easy path."
He's being too harsh. Government procurement processes have been hidebound for far too long and it's been impossible to effect any change. Chant criticises himself for being part of the process but, in truth, there was very little an individual CIO could have done to change the system. Yes, they've taken the easy path but to do otherwise would have involved a massive upheaval to the whole process-making part of government.
Denise McDonagh, Chant's successor will have an ideal opportunity to build on the work that he's started and has a fertile field to work on. As Chant points out there are a whole lot of factors leading to change including a willingness by CIOs to embrace new ideas and a desire to be more supportive of users and this has led to a whole new philosophy.
"Underpinning this desire for change is the recent switch to almost total transparency – things that were never published before are now routinely published, even before someone asks for them via FoI. Data is being made available by the Open Data initiative. Public Services are being opened up too. If the data is going to be made available anyway, what does “security” mean in the government context? This change in approach is forcing departments to confront what they really need to keep secure – and far from prying eyes - and what they don’t."
This thinking echoes what's happening in the private sector too. The arrival of Facebook and Twitter on the scene means that we're rethinking what privacy and personal information mean, it's no surprise that some of this is being translated into government thought. In an era when ministers are now contemplating publishing their tax returns - something that would have been considered lunacy a mere 20 or 30 years ago - the tendency of governments to keep something secret merely because they can, begins to look like an anachronism.
The G-Cloud initiative, the launch of Cloudstore are promising starts, the task is to build on them. Making a good start is not always enough as that advantage can disappear. It's something that Chris Chant, a Spurs supporter, will know all too well.