NAO report and PSN – a PSNGB perspective

The National Audit Office (NAO) recently published their report on the impact of government’s ICT savings initiatives. Their findings are neatly summarised in the report – “Government has made a good start on reducing ICT spend and reforming supplier relationships. The Cabinet Office is now facing the challenge of moving its initiatives from saving money in buying ICT, to ICT solutions that reform public services and the way that government works.”

That’s both a positive assessment but also a familiar challenge – how best to keep spending in check whilst recognising that what you’re buying holds the potential for a much greater good. Let’s consider a simple analogy from our own communications industry.

Consumers, particularly in our present times of economic hardship, expect the unit cost of their broadband to go down. And with many service providers competing hard for their cash with increasingly attractive offers, that’s just what has been happening. People will only pay more for demonstrably faster speeds and tangible experience of better service and support.

But cost isn’t the only yardstick by which savvy consumers judge the value they’re getting. Real value is increasingly about what that broadband connection enables them to do and how this saves even more money or helps them in other ways. The list of those applications – from shopping to social media, real time entertainment, TV replay, gaming, working from home, job applications, video conferencing, music downloads, and so on – and their benefits grows constantly.

So it is with Government ICT. Of course cost is important and that won’t change. Moore’s Law, commoditisation and ‘more for less’ are an established technology trend! The fact that £64m savings have been verified – ahead of target – due to sharing ICT through the PSN programme is a great early achievement. In the words of the report initiatives are “starting to have a positive impact on value for money in an area of spend that has previously proved intractable”. But unless the measure of value can extend to encompass those additional benefits that ICT can enable, cheaper ICT won’t mean better government.

This is reflected in the review: “The Cabinet Office should … develop how it and departments evaluate and report the impact of ICT initiatives beyond just ICT savings”. It’s also recognised that “indiscriminate cost-cutting of ICT risks leaving public services exposed or unprepared for the future”.

The business outcomes of ICT, and specifically PSN, need to be better understood in order to develop appropriate ways to measure success beyond paring back the comms budget. Understanding the overall value for money ICT enables is needed to gain the essential backing of CEOs, CFOs and other senior public leaders. And because getting the most from ICT invariably involves some changes in processes, ways of working or policies, then balancing and managing the overall potential gains to the public purse against the risk of that change is important.

Just as the bigger benefits that consumers and their circles of family and friends gain from faster broadband mean adopting and adapting to new ways of working, shopping, socialising or being entertained so too, in public services, organisations will need to operate differently within and between themselves. Not all leaders will be convinced of the case and there are challenges, some real and some perceived, to be overcome but in the words of the report, the challenge is now to “drive a convincing and informed debate about ICT-led reform across the civil service”.

Sound economics will need to be complemented by clear communication and a campaign of education and engagement with senior leaders around the potential of effective ICT and digital delivery to crack previously intractable ‘wicked issues’. They’ll need to grasp the applicability of ICT enabled change for improving frontline services, for realising policy commitments, for meeting local social and economic priorities and for starting to decouple inexorably rising service demands from their delivery cost.

This is arguably the greatest challenge for PSN in 2013 – to sustain cost saving and delivery whilst understanding and making the case for those much greater economies and sustainable longer term public service improvements that must be built on its foundation. PSNGB is taking the lead in this. We have already commissioned research, working with Kable, to identify and verify the challenges faced by senior public leaders that PSN and shared services can help address. In the coming months we’ll be working to articulate and highlight the wider realisable benefits of PSN, to quantify these and to point out the implications for change, potential barriers and mitigations. It will be an exciting journey, and one that we’ll be inviting senior leaders to participate in with us as we progress together.

Neil Mellor – Director, PSNGB

Admin - January 31, 2013