Public Sector IT: developing IT systems for everyone
Public sector IT projects have a mixed reputation, at best: more and more government services are available online, but privacy concerns have exploded, and high profile failures internationally have raised the spectre of poor government oversight and rent-seeking by the private sector.
Still, expectations are rising: politicians demand greater efficiency, and the public at large wants more access to government services online. How these expectations can be met whilst also keeping the show on the road is the core question that must be asked of any public IT project.
Managed service provider Paradyn works with a range of local authorities and public bodies, having started providing wireless connectivity but moving from there into more general IT service provision.
“The public sector [IT] reputation is very complex,” said Fergal Meehan, Paradyn’s head of public sector sales.
“Public sector bodies can’t take the same risk as private bodies [and] the other thing is there is an issue of political and media attention, and that tends to slow things down.
“There are some pitfalls and reservations; that’s what slows things down, it’s not what people think,” he said.
Nonetheless, Meehan does think that procurement procedures are inadequate for today’s agile IT.
“Personally, I believe public procurement is a problem, even though it’s there in the public interest–and so it should be. It’s set up for consumables and building and so on, not for [modern] IT,” he said.
Mark Hopkins, public sector director at Dell EMC Ireland says that any problems that do bedevil public sector IT are global in nature rather than specifically Irish.
“I don’t think it’s unique to the Republic of Ireland. I’ve worked across multiple systems across the globe and there have often been issues: there have been a lot changes in personnel and the strategy which got in the way of execution,” he said.
Hopkins singles out some public bodies as examples of IT strategy done well.
“If you look at HE sector [and] the office of the CIO and the HSE in particular there have been a lot of changes but they’re now locked-in to a strategy that they want to deliver on. The focus, they’ve been clear on this, is on execution.”
The changing nature of government and public sector IT is demonstrated by the nature of the systems being sold in: large, monolithic systems and ‘big iron’ still have their place but, increasingly, the focus is on agile development and cloud-based solutions driving a more flexible IT experience.
Stuart Provan, public sector leader at Oracle UK says that virtually every public sector body in the UK runs an Oracle database of some kid, but today the company’s focus is much wider.
“Where Oracle is now, and where we’re going as a company it’ll come as no surprise, is in the cloud,” he said.
Government IT has not always lagged behind the private sector, he says, pointing to widespread adoption of new technologies.
“In government there are a lot of early adopters of ERP [enterprise resource planning] via SaaS [software as a service],” he said.
“Some of them are looking to do it in a shared service way; the rest of what is happening in cloud, as far as I can see, is in terms of innovation. A few years ago, open source was the great new thing [and] I think there’s a really good combination now, with agile DevOps and so on being spun up and alpha testing, fail fast, fail cheaply, is big: it’s really about breaking up big IT.”
According to Provan, this openness to new methodologies and desire to think about IT in a modular way means that “rather than spending multi-million pounds with a vendor like us, or anyone else, [you can] take a bit of cloud, take a bit of open source and try it out.”
Irish government chief information officer Barry Lowry says that there is a necessary conservatism when it comes to adopting the latest technologies.
“You will hear the innovators saying fail fast, fail cheaply but never be afraid to fail. People like the Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos say that. Well, believe me, you can’t do that in government. You will have the Comptroller and Auditor General at your door.
“As a result we tend to me more risk averse than business,” he said.
This does not mean public IT projects are simply in stasis, though. New, and sometimes controversial, technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) are looked at; they are not, however, deployed without serious thought.
“In terms of project governance, we’re very good. We’re very, very good at managing projects, but you could say the emphasis is on risk-management rather than speed. AI will be looked at very slowly,” said Lowry.
Some areas of public sector IT, notably welfare and tax, have been long term success stories, but Lowry says the state is required to be a lot more cautious than the private sector when it comes to the public-facing aspects of technology.
“The Irish Revenue is a standout example. Some of the things we do in agriculture are exceptional. We’re also exceptional around open data, actually [and] there’s good progress being made in MyGovID.
“My late mother, when she was 86, got a letter from her bank saying they were closing down her branch, but not to worry [ad] they we introducing new digital services. Government [on the other hand] will never drop the most needy citizens. We’re trying to introduce a new way of interacting with government, but we must keep the traditional channels open,” he said.
Innovation at the backend, however, is taking place in terms of shared services and cloud-based systems.
“We’ve built our strategy around a hybrid cloud solution [whereby] all our data will reside in either public cloud or government cloud. the cloud allows you to rationalise and virtualise, and you can get tin at a very competitive price.
“The government cloud will be in a very energy efficiency data centre. We have a proof of concept which has been very successful, and we’re doing the business case at the minute,” he said.
One IT system that notoriously failed to achieve was the UK’s NHS project, which cost billions more than was budgeted for, was eventually abandoned, and the failure to implement it now been blamed for hundreds of unnecessary deaths.
High stakes, indeed.
Failures in Ireland have typically been more modest, and often result from public rejection of the technology, such as the electronic voting machines proposed by the Fianna Fáil government of the 2000s.
Other projects such as Eircode, the unified public services card and Individual Health Identifier have not been failures, but have proven controversial due to growing concerns about the amount of data consumed in the digital world. Such concerns are matters of policy and law, however, not technology.
Jim McGovern, customer accounts director at Fujitsu says that public sector IT is subject to significantly more press scrutiny as a result of its public nature.
“The biggest issue with cloud [for example] from a public sector and government point of view is privacy and the GDPR,” he said.
“When you talk to them they are very clear: ‘I want to make it safe-safe-safe’.”
Despite this, he says, Irish public sector bodies are in line with their counterparts elsewhere in the EU.
“They’ve done things like Revenue Online, and [the] international driving licences. These things get done. Look at FixMyStreet.ie: that’s cloud; it’s on top of an older, legacy system, but it’s up in the cloud – and it works,” he said.
Where there has been some delay, McGovern says, it is often justified.
“The HSE [for example] has looked at all of the systems [already] out there and they’re not going to make the same mistakes other countries have,” he said.
Spending is also always controversial with public projects, but Dell EMC’s Hopkins says that it does need to recover.
“We’re ahead in some places and behind in others. Given we had one of the deepest recessions in the EU there is still a catch-up process going on.
“A healthy spend in healthcare should be three to four per cent on ICT. Historically it has been 0.75%, for obvious reasons,” he said.
Additionally, other concerns abound – not least privacy, in light of recent breaches such as the stolen Eir laptop and growing concerns about the likes of Facebook and Google. With public sector bodies dealing with data such as health and income, concerns are, if anything, more acute.
When it comes to government, the questions are: should we expect better, and should we value efficiency over privacy?
Sharing of data, and shared services in general, have a tendency to set alarm bells ringing.
GCIO Lowry sees this as the growing pains of an information society.
“I think we’re definitely moving in the direction of joined-up government. I’ve heard all these stories that it’ll never happen [but] I was hugely impressed with the willingness to work together across the various heads of government IT.
“At the end of the day, if we don’t start sharing data we’ll have to keep entering it over and over again. I think the public are a lot less concerned about this than the people who write and campaign on it would suggest,” he said.
Whether or not he is right about that time will tell, and it may well depend on how well safeguards can be guaranteed.
Away from cloud, big iron and security, one aspect of technology that gets more than its share of attention is marketing. As public sector services increasingly rely on digital channels for delivery, marketing them digitally becomes vital.
Joanne Sweeney-Burke, founder of the Digital Training Institute, says that there is a greater need for public sector bodies to engage with digital communications, and to do it directly.
“I specifically developed a new course after working with the public sector over the years,” she said.
The rationale was that the public sector, as a whole, lagged behind the private sector when it came to making use of digital marketing channels.
“Number one, there was the recession,” she said, “but, when it came to digital there was a lot of outsourcing, and I felt that they needed to retain that knowledge in-house.”
“In order to test the market, I launched the Public Sector Digital Marketing Summit at the Mansion house. It gave a voice to people working in digital in the public sector specifically.”
This exclusivity was important, she says, because with all participants being from the public sector they could speak freely.
“Public sector is a step behind, perhaps because they’re conservative but also they don’t have the confidence,” she said.
In addition, getting a message out via digital channels is more important than ever—whether or not anyone likes it.
“Donald Trump is setting the standard for public interest messaging right now [and] you have things like the storm Emma or even the papal visit.
“So far there are fifteen different organisations from Ireland that have signed-up [to the course], but I’ve also had interest from Dubai, Scotland and Western Australia,” she said
“Social media is more than a tweet,” she said, “it’s all about defending the truth. I want to leapfrog the public sector ahead of where the private sector is, and I feel that they’re outsourcing the knowledge to agencies and they need to keep it in-house.”
Moving public sector IT forward
An important event in the public sector IT calendar takes place on 5 December in Dublin. The Annual Public Sector IT Conference is organised by the Irish Computer Society (ICS) and sees government departmental and regional heads of IT, semi-state CIOs and IT managers converge to share experiences of delivering public services through innovative digital solutions. A focus of this year’s conference is the need for high standards in the skills and expertise of employees and the professionalisation of ICT.
Specifically tackling the lack of common understanding of the term ‘ICT Professional’, the conference will address concerns around poor public perception of ICT education and careers, skills shortages and a history of ICT project failures contribute to the ‘immaturity’ of the ICT profession.
In the Decisions feature on standards and certifications on page 21, ICS’s Mary Cleary speaks to TechPro, describing the need for an agreed relevant body of knowledge, defined competences, continuous professional development and a code of ethics for IT professionals.