A year of strategic scene-setting: 2011 in review
In case there was any doubt, the theme of 2011 was set in May, by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude. "The department will no longer... allow Whitehall to spend taxpayers' money inefficiently," the Cabinet Office's business plan said, sternly.
The wider public sector could reasonably argue that it needed no Whitehall business plan to tell it to spend money wisely. Local authorities, in particular, were already grappling with the implications of budget cuts.
However 2011 was notable for a steady flow of strategic advice from Whitehall and elsewhere - some more welcome than others.
Apart from the business plan, the Cabinet Office produced a long-awaited ICT strategy and an accompanying implementation plan. There were consultations on transparency and open data, and on an information-age NHS. All this was accompanied by a formidable set of deadlines, not always honoured by those setting them. As early as March, UKauthorITy was reporting that a plan for sharing services across Whitehall was behind schedule.
In May, the IT managers' association Socitm showed it was singing from a similar hymn sheet to the Cabinet Office when it came out with its own IT strategy. Planting the Flag set out a vision of "unprecedented levels of collaboration between local authorities, emergency services, health, education and civil society organisations,leading to radical re-design of local public service delivery." However, while stressing the need to move towards a common, shared ICT infrastructure, especially to support the secure exchange of "a single version of the truth" Socitm's strategists showed a healthy scepticism of Whitehall's ability to create a sone-size-fits-all platform.
And, over the year, local government showed itself quite capable of seizing the initiative in sharing infrastructure and services. Notable examples included Kent's strategic IT partnership linking all 14 Kent and Medway local authorities plus Kent Police and Kent Fire and Rescue Service, an initiative by seven councils across the Clyde valley to share support services, and a clutch of cross-border collaborations between London boroughs. Meanwhile in January, Virgin Media Business offered all London public sector bodies the chance to make use of the London Grid for Learning Network on draw-down contracts - a likely precursor to many such arrangements through the emerging Public Services Network (PSN).
A major survey by UKauthorITy found widespread enthusiasm for sharing services, with party politics no longer seen as a significant factor when picking a public body partner. While cutting costs was overwhelmingly the strongest reason for sharing, more than 70% of respondents saw shared services as an opportunity for innovation, radical redesign of services or improvements in quality. Remarkably, only 5.7% of respondents said that their organisation's needs were unique to the extent that sharing services with other organisations would not be possible.
Local government also showed leadership in another of the ICT strategy's themes, increasing the use of open-source software. An exhaustive investigation by Bristol City council found "no security or accreditation issues that prevent the evaluation and potential deployment of open source system within the council's enterprise boundary". Meanwhile, Warwickshire county council and London borough of Hillingdon led the public sector's first, tentative, move into cloud computing.
It was not all painless. In May the National Audit Office delivered its harshest verdict yet on NHS national IT programme, saying that the effort to install electronic care-records systems in English NHS hospitals "does not represent value for money" and that future prospects were no better. Political fallout rocked the Department of Health's bold plans for an "information revolution" in the NHS. Christine Connelly, the head of information announced her departure and was replaced by a Cabinet Office secondee. In October, officials admitted that a strategy covering health and social care would not appear until spring 2012, nearly a year behind schedule. Against this background, Chancellor George Osborne's autumn statement promise to make GP records availableonline within four years had a certain panache.
Osborne's announcement was made in the context of the government's transparency agenda, also driven by the Cabinet Office. Over the year he announced the availability of several new data sets in re-usable format. However the creation of a new Public Data Corporation, which had been scheduled for April, was postponed after receiving a thorough hammering in a public consultation.
Another embryonic new body causing controversy was the police-owned IT company, announced in June by Home Secretary Theresa May. The new company, owned by police authorities, would be responsible for "the procurement, implementation and management of complex contracts for information technology, related business change and outsourcing services, supplying both national and local services for police," May said in a statement to Parliament.
One gestation to come to term was that of the Government Digital Service, which came into being in April and was formally launched in December. Its chief Mike Bracken enthused about the possibilities of creating "digital by default" public services, with a common look and feel, through a new "agile" approach to project management.
In its last IT report of the year, the NAO gave the new service a cautious thumbs-up - but called on it to concentrate on financial and management discipline as well as building cool new web services. No doubt the warning will be re-stated in 2012, as the challenges of creating radically new public services while cutting costs make themselves felt.
Few figures on the public sector IT scene had an easy time this year - but 12 months hence many will be looking back on 2011 as one long sabbatical before things got real.