“I’m still around.”
It was a point well made last week by Francis Maude, UK government Minister for the Cabinet Office and the political figure most responsible for the transformation of the UK public sector towards a digital future.
Maude took up his post when the current Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition administration took office in 2010 and rather to the annoyance of some on both the buy and sell side, he’s still in situ.
One of Maude’s first acts was to bring in all the leading ICT suppliers to the UK government and give them a shakedown talk that basically consisted of the vendors being told their existing contracts needed to be revised - in the government’s favor.
Some vendors - such as Capgemini and Oracle - responded quickly to this new reality; others dragged their heels, assuming that Maude as a political appointment would be a passing fancy in his role.
In other words, if the more unrepentant suppliers sat it out for long enough, Maude would be gone and taken his tough talking with him.
But the trouble is he hasn't gone away. He didn’t move on even though Prime Minister David Cameron has shuffled his ministerial pack and moved around other Cabinet members to new seats around the table.
Talking last week as he announced that in the first six months of 2013, the government had managed to make £5.4 billion of additional savings, there was a clear note of satisfaction in the air when Maude said:
“There were plenty of people who thought we couldn’t do this. They assumed we’d grab the low hanging fruit and then give up and move on.
“They didn’t take us seriously because they didn’t think I’d be around long enough to make a difference.
“And when you consider that none of my 8 predecessors lasted more than 18 months in this job, you can see why they might have made that mistake.”
(That £5.4 billion saving is impressive, but a long way from the full year target of £15 billion. Although at the six month point in 2012, the comparable numbers were £3.1 billion with a further £10 billion coming in the second half of the year, so the gap may well be closed.)
On top of the brief
By sticking around there’s a strong case to be made that Maude is one of the most ‘on top of his brief’ ministers in the UK government, impressive when most MPs still flirt with tech issues only in the vague hope that some hint of modernity might brush off on them in the process.Certainly he’s in a position to speak from experience when he talks about how much of a slog it has been to bring genuine transformation to bear across a public sector that had become institutionalised to expect high profile failure at big ticket prices.
“In those early days it was quite tough.
“Our Management Information was lamentable. Departments developed different systems for collecting data, so you couldn’t spot the efficiencies because you couldn’t compare how money was spent in different parts of government.
“We didn’t even know who our biggest suppliers were. I had to write to the chief executives of the ones we guessed were our biggest suppliers to ask them to let us know how much business they did with the government. Government itself didn’t have that information.
“And our digital presence was light years behind the curve.”
There have been highly publicised drives to put things right in the past, but these have not achieved their goals, observes Maude:
“Back in 1999, it was proposed that half of government services should be delivered electronically by 2005 and all of them by 2008.
“When we came into office in 2010, we found that only some government services were available online – and frankly the quality of these varied enormously.”
Three years on he contends that things are improving, although sometimes things have had to be taken into his own hands.
Last month it emerged that Maude had set up his own personal wifi in his office as he was fed up off the poor official IT infrastructure in the Cabinet Office which was dismissed as "clunky" and "rubbish".
But the minister is now confident enough to argue:
“For the first time we have a consistent system for collecting Management Information across government – it’s not perfect, by a long way, but it beats the hell out of what was we inherited.
“We have saved billions for the taxpayer by getting tough with suppliers and working as one government in a grown up way with our major suppliers.
“GOV.UK [the central online resource for government services] is winning awards and we are starting to become genuinely digital by default.”
The new targets
The current targets for a digital public sector are to have all government services handling over 100,000 transactions a year to be offered online by 2018.
All of this has required a major cultural shift, he argues:
“Gone is the fixation with unwieldy all-consuming Big IT projects that were dominant in the past, and in comes an approach which is open, flexible, agile.
“Underpinning all this is a commitment to user-needs – technology is there to serve the user not to serve the government.”
There are still enormous cash savings to be made as well, contends Maude:
“As well as making it easier for the public, we also saved 70% of the legacy costs.
“Quite often the same traits that make online services better – designing them to be simpler, clearer, faster – also cause them to be cheaper.”
But perhaps the job will never be completed, he concludes:
“We know that significant scope remains to deliver radical cost reductions and improve public services at the same time.
“And frankly that will never be complete. No great organisation ever completes the task of making itself more efficient.
“This will always be a work in progress – with a lot more progress to make.”
While the ongoing troubles with the IT aspects of programmes such as Universal Credit remind us of how far there is to go, the good work done by the likes of the G-Cloud initiative and the wider Government Digital Service point to a potentially better IT delivery future.
Having Maude in harness for such an extended period of time has provided a level of consistency that has proved enormously useful when it comes to pushing through reforms.
Of course, one day he will be gone as all politicians are. But it is to be hoped that the precedents are now set so firmly that there can be no going back to the bad habits of old.