This article is more than 1 year old goes back to school to avoid future IT blunders

GCHQ level of expertise needed across government

Whitehall's waste of £470m on a botched attempt to modernise fire service control rooms in England begs questions about what UK plc is doing to prevent a similar haemorrhage of money in the future.

A scathing report on FiReControl by parliament's public accounts committee said the project was flawed from the outset and blamed over-reliance on external expertise allied with poor management and oversight.

Nobody has been held responsible for FiReControl's failures, but the government is attempting to address the underlying problems afflicting major IT projects through measures which include improving in-house skills.

One attempt began this August with the Cabinet Office's launch of the Commercial Interchange Pilot Programme to improve the commercial capabilities of government through an exchange of skills and knowledge with the private sector. It is is part of the Efficiency and Reform Group's commercial skills capability work and involves a two-way staff interchange between Whitehall and its suppliers, offering secondments to individuals, typically lasting for six months.

Besides the Cabinet Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for Transport are currently involved in five pilots and an expected 12 placements. This may seem small scale, but after an initial run until December, the results will be analysed and the programme could be extended or expanded.

In addition, the Cabinet Office has promised a new ICT capability strategy to be published in late autumn, although the details are still under wraps.

Adam Thilthorpe, the British Computer Society's (BCS) director of professionalism says: "Often people think the private and public sectors are chalk and cheese. But they are not: they are dealing with and sometimes struggling with the same challenges." He maintains that the "cross fertilisation of ideas" between the two sectors has great potential.

In September, science minister David Willetts announced Behind the Screen, a joint project between government and private companies including the BBC, IBM, Capgemini, Cisco, Deloitte, HP and Microsoft, aimed at transforming the school IT curriculum. It is being run by e-skills UK and, according to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, it will be delivered initially through after school clubs. If it is successful, the government could go on to create a new GCSE and A-level covering computational principles, systemic thinking and software development and logic.

Chris Pennell, principal analyst at Kable, is enthusiastic about the project: "This is about the stuff that the UK used to be really good at back in the early 80s, when use of PCs was taking off and you had people at Cambridge leading the way. And if you encourage people at a young age, you are more likely to be able to recruit people into the public sector who already have good IT skills."

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) claims to be investing in IT professional learning and to have more than doubled spending on its IT skills capability over the past three years.

About 1,000 of its staff are members of the BCS. "We have invested in a group membership scheme with the BCS and actively encourage members to engage with the BCS community, benefiting from a number of activities and special interest groups, many of which have been tailored to our specific needs," the department says.

It also claims 78% of its IT supplier management staff as full members of the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply, and a further nine in training.

It has been taking a number of other actions to develop its internal IT skills. These include embedding the industry standard Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) into its personal development programme, resource planning processes and organisational design processes, so that IT roles and the skills are more closely aligned to wider best practice.

HMRC figures show that in April 2009 42% of its IT staff were considered "capable" against the SFIA framework, but in 2010-11 this reached 70%, and it predicts that by 2011-12 this will rise to 85%.

The Ministry of Justice has also been using the SFIA framework, and has a project to develop IT career paths which will be finalised in late autumn.

Pennell believes that the problems with FiReControl and other major IT projects are not just about government's lack technical skills, but also being able to assess risk and manage projects properly.

"If you don't know what you want, if you don't understand the need you are trying to address, how can you procure something to satisfy that need?" he asks. "If you go to any supplier and say 'I want to reduce how much I am paying out in benefits and fraud', for example, that is not something that an IT provider would understand. There is this disconnect."

Bernard Jenkin, who chairs the public administration select committee, has cited outsourcing as a contributory factor. When the committee published its report on government IT projects in July, he said outsourcing has led to many civil servants, along with their knowledge, skills and networks being transferred to the private sector. "The government needs to rebuild this capacity urgently," Jenkins said.

Thilthorpe says that organisations like GCHQ and CESG have tended to retain IT talent because there has been an obvious need for government to have their information security capabilities, but this type of retention is needed "across the board".

"It is time to get a good consistent tide of talent coming through the ranks, which will lead to government becoming a more intelligent customer, which will lead to better procurement," he says.

Recruitment experts believe government should create a centre of expertise to manage talent. At a hearing of the public administration committee in September Peter Smith, the director of public sector consulting at recruitment consultancy Hay Group, told MPs that most departments are not big enough to have recruitment experts and had "done themselves no favours in separating themselves off from each other".

Thilthorpe argues that IT skills are "absolutely critical" for public and private sector organisations and that the most successful are the ones that are making best use of IT. He cites Tesco's use of data mining and loyalty cards to design customer services.

"Fifteen years ago Tesco said they were going to be the largest supermarket and got laughed out of town," he says. "Well no one is laughing now.

"So I think the organisations that really get this stuff – and it's the same in the public sector – have a real advantage, are able to deliver better services."

When it comes to government's progress in developing its IT skills, Thilthorpe believes the Cabinet Office is doing some good work around "accelerated learning" for graduates, but that this needs to be broadened. As he puts it: "It's about operational excellence and growing your own talent." ®

This article was originally published at Guardian Government Computing.

Guardian Government Computing is a business division of Guardian Professional, and covers the latest news and analysis of public sector technology. For updates on public sector IT, join the Government Computing Network here.

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