Ian Watmore: ‘Majority of projects go very well and the public never hears’

Cabinet Office permanent secretary on IT’s role in public sector projects, social media for citizen engagement and how the government is a hacking trophy

Former government chief information officer (CIO) Ian Watmore might be new to the position of Cabinet Office permanent secretary, but he still recognises that digital technology presents a significant opportunity for the government to engage with citizens and shape the future of public services.

Watmore, who spent the last year or so operating as the chief operating officer for the government’s Efficiency and Reform Group, was recently appointed to his current role to help fill the leadership void following Sir Gus O’Donnell’s retirement from the role of cabinet secretary.

“The new generation of politicians really understand technology,” says Watmore. “It’s a business issue that is on the top table in every department in Whitehall.”

The elevated position of technology, according to Watmore, has been inspired by the increasing digital element of public policy and the growing desire of UK citizens to access public information online.

Social media has a key role to play in the government’s digital future, he says. “Politicians are elected to deliver their own philosophy, which revolves around localisation and participation. They now have to address that philosophy through social media – it’s impossible to separate the political and digital world within which we live.

Watmore and his colleagues at the Cabinet Office are charged with helping UK politicians to use technology to engage citizens and create the type of transformation anticipated in the four-year period covered by the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review.

His team are exploring how technology can provide new channels for citizens to interact with the government and share their views on how services should develop.

“We’re testing, in political terms, what is potentially out there,” says Watmore. “The biggest IT challenge now for the government is to get the whole system to think through the end user and allow citizens to help design relevant solutions.

“The system of IT development has traditionally been geared up towards taking an idea from a politician and pushing it to the public. If we can engage and create the types of solutions that the public wants, then technology will be really transformative. That type of change presents a cultural challenge, but we need to harness the public view and get it into the political machine.”

However, greater web and digital engagement must also be balanced against access concerns, with online security an in-built priority for all Whitehall IT projects.

“It’s all about managing the tension,” adds Watmore, before drawing a wider analogy: “If you walk into a shop, you don’t want to have to walk through three sets of armed guards before you get to look around. The trend, these days, is towards openness. But let’s not get hung up on, for example, the security implications of the cloud. Let’s just make sure that when people say something’s secure, it is really secure.”

“The online world is under threat from criminals and we have to protect ourselves,” he adds. “The government can be seen as a hacking trophy and can be a target for state-sponsored attacks, particularly because of the large flows of money involved.”

The government has some serious expertise on the case: “We have some of the best people on our side at GCHQ,” says Watmore. Continuing to deepen that skills base is important, especially as the government is aiming to extend online accessibility and openness for citizens.

Along with security, project management remains high on Watmore’s agenda and he recognises how government IT projects are often associated with high profile disasters in the media. Expensive problem projects, like the NHS’ National Programme for IT, certainly do not help create positive perceptions.

But public accountability – although important in terms of openness and transparency – means civil servants are often held to account for the minutiae of programmes to a level that would be anathema in the closely guarded world of enterprise IT. It is a situation that is not unfamiliar to Watmore, a veteran of the private as well as public sector.

“The majority of projects go very well and the public never gets to hear about them,” he says. “The failure is rarely because of IT. The problem area is either a flawed policy to begin with, or a sense that the business requirement changed and that the amount of transformation was not recognised. If you want change to come from IT, you have to do more than computerise an existing process.”

Improvement, says Watmore, will come through better working practices and smarter programme management, something he continues to prioritise in his role at the Cabinet Office. Above all, Watmore wants to remove any sense of ambiguity. “We know what the key projects are,” he says. “We have to put the right leadership in place and be honest enough to recognise when things are not working.”

Any new policy will be rigorously checked and the pace of roll out carefully considered. “Big bangs tend to be big explosions,” says Watmore.

This article is published by Guardian Professional. For weekly updates on news, debate and best practice on public sector IT, join the Government Computing Network here.


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