Public sector IT successes showcased at BCS

Last night I attended a significant BCS meeting, organised by the North London Branch, featuring very senior IT executives talking about the challenges they have met. The focus ended up being very much on high-profile public sector enterprises, since the one private sector (vendor) speaker was unwell. None the worse for that.

We began with an outline, from Bryan Glick, Editor-in-Chief, Computer Weekly, of their 2010 UKtech50 review and awards – the panel included the chair of the Corporate IT Forum’s Advisory Board, John Harris of GSK, and with my links both to the Forum and to GSK that was good to see!

Bryan outlined the criteria for selection, and led us through some highlights of the awards: not just the top of the overall list, but other selections including the “top 5 promoted CIOs” who have made it as overall business leaders. The top 5 in public sector IT included John Suffolk, at the time UK Government CIO but who stepped down shortly after the awards; but not including either of the evening’s major speakers … Life moves fast, as Bryan commented. Similarly the top5 innovators included, predictably, Tim Berners-Lee (number 4 in the overall list); but also Eric Huggett, responsible at the BBC for many developments including the iPlayer, who’s also moved on.

The conclusions here? Perception of influence is determined by context and by key IT trends. It’s a high turnover field; the 2011 list could be very different.

Then to our two public sector leaders. Christine Connelly, UK Health CIO since 2008, is a former colleague from my time in BP Exploration. Her business calibre is illustrated by the fact that when most of us techies were made redundant, as John Cross began the outsourcing revolution, Christine stayed as someone who could interface with providers across a contract and develop the business-oriented approach that was needed. Since then she’s worked both in IT posts as such, and in other areas of business.

The Department of Health manages not only healthcare delivery (through the National Health Service) but also social care (delivered through local authority social service departments). Bringing together the business of the NHS and the wider Department is a major challenge, and Christine’s mission is to facilitate this: the IT budgets alone are around £1.8 bn and £1.3 bn respectively. In the NHS, for example, there are around a million primary care interactions every 36 hours. It’s a massive undertaking. IT provides the infrastructure that facilitates other parts of the business; and participates in re-inventing healthcare.

Innovation here can clearly be about smart uses of conventional technology. Christine’s example was the website that was built in short order to cater for the rush of swine flu business (which could have been massively greater). It was a “boring” website, but it worked; it handled the volume; and, more importantly, it re-invented healthcare by enabling people to self-diagnose and be given access to prescription drugs without involving (and therefore without overloading) the front line practitioners.

By recognising there is “no chance anything will not be influenced by IT”, and by avoiding getting trapped by running the infrastructure, you identify yourself as a business participant not a pigeon-holed techie.

Phil Pavitt, CIO for HM Revenue & Customs, followed and illustrated many of the same points from a different angle. A very different person, by background, from Christine: he began as a debt collector for BT’s civil-service precursor (Post Office Telephones) but started having bright ideas which were taken up by management; and the rest is history. In HMRC, he is challenged to both reduce costs and collect more revenue. And he has to change the wheels while the bus is rolling; there is no way any HMRC systems can be taken down, as the operation really is 24×365.

It’s a story of considerable achievement, moving services to outsourced suppliers who are willing to carry the cost of substantial changes (cost to HMRC, therefore, zero) in the context of the longer term contracts. It’s also a story of recognition, since he has also been appointed as Director-General for Change – with responsibility for the overall business change agenda in HMRC. And those of us who use the online systems, whether it’s to find information or to do online returns, appreciate the quality, reliability and speed that have quietly built up over recent years. The information’s there, it’s well designed, and the stuff works.

And when it comes to professional standards: he’s mandating professional accreditation (largely through the BCS) for all his staff. A great segue to the next speaker, who was David Clarke, the BCS CEO. David gave us a personal insight into why he started the BCS’s Professionalism push, and mapped this against the Capability Maturity Model which, initially, showed how far behind the curve we were (“we”, because I’m a member …). Now, BCS membership and professional accreditation is growing rapidly.

As Christine Connelly later commented in Q&A: recruitment has moved on. In our early careers we were hired for our knowledge. Mid-career, in the 1990s perhaps, the focus was on skills – not “does s/he know Cobol” (or Fortran) but “can s/he develop programs”. Now, it’s a person’s attitude and approach that matter: making things happen, and being adaptable to different means of delivery. It’s not a technie role any longer.

• BCS North Lond Branch: Tip Top IT, 30 Mar 2011 (this link will be updated when the post-event report is available)
• Computer Weekly’s UKtech50 2010
• Department of Health Senior Team
• HMRC Executive Committee
• HMRC Change Delivery Committee (chaired by Phil Pavitt; page down for links to Minutes of meetings)
• BCS the Chartered Institute for IT

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