'An amateur pursuit': Why change management isn't working in the public sector

Interview: Glyn Evans on why government still doesn't get IT...
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

Interview: Glyn Evans on why government still doesn't get IT...

After 30 years on the front line of government IT, Glyn Evans knows a thing or two about the public sector - and he believes it's still not professional enough when it comes to running major tech projects.

Evans is no stranger to large IT-led change programmes. Until July he headed Birmingham City Council's £671m business transformation programme, the largest programme of its kind ever undertaken by a local authority in the UK.

Evans believes the government's legacy of failure on major IT projects can be partly attributed to mistakes made in appointing the project heads.

Glyn Evans Birmingham City Council

Glyn Evans is leaving his post as corporate director of business change at Birmingham City Council to become a senior research assistant at Warwick Business SchoolPhoto: Birmingham City Council

"The general history of change in the public sector is almost that of an amateur pursuit," he said.

"You have people given responsibility for [change projects] without identifying the skillsets that people leading the change need.

"Some organisations don't even know what the benefits they were supposed to be able to achieve in the first place were, let alone are able to track [whether they are achieving] them."

As a general rule, Evans said, government IT projects seem more prone to problems when attempting to change existing technologies and ways of working within an organisation.

"We do things quite well when a policy comes out that asks for the creation of something new.

"Where we seem to get unstuck is getting existing parts of the public sector to do things differently," he said.

Evans cited the delayed National Programme for IT - the £11bn programme to reform NHS technology - as an example of government pushing through centralised policy-driven changes without enough thought about how those changes would be realised on the ground.

"It came out of a policy document and has been very fraught in terms of its implementation.

"I would argue - and part of my research will look into whether there's anything behind this argument - that's in part because the process of changing an existing organisation wasn't well managed," he said.

Ultimately, Evans believes the main reason IT-enabled business transformation projects fail is...

...because the people running them focus too heavily on changing the technology rather than altering the business practices that make the organisation inefficient.

"I can honestly say from my experience here [in Birmingham] that the biggest challenges have not been the technology. The biggest challenges are around changing the way the organisation operates alongside the technology," he said.

"The reason projects fail is because they are run as IT projects rather than business change projects.

"That's a message that hasn't been got over in the public or private sector."

Evans will test his theories of why IT-led change projects fail inside government, and how they can succeed, as part of his role as a senior research assistant at Warwick Business School, a post he took up in July after leaving his role as Birmingham City Council's corporate director of business change.

The future of the CIO role

Looking back on the role of the government CIO after three decades of service, Evans said it is still the case that many senior government officials fail to appreciate the role technology and the CIO could play in transforming public service delivery, through measures such as online services and shared back-office services.

"There is a role for the CIO to add value to the organisation which, generally speaking, isn't being exploited at the moment," he said.

"Most CIOs in local government are still titled IT managers and most of them spend most of their time running the technology."

Part of the blame for the public sector's disinterest in IT-led transformation projects lies with such projects overpromising and underdelivering in the past, Evans said.

"We've got a legacy of unmet expectations that we have to address. There is also a lack of awareness among senior management and senior leadership around the potential of IT."

Those in charge in government are unlikely to change their attitude in the short term, because in today's cost-cutting environment, Evans said, the public sector is looking to save, not spend money on IT.

"I think we're going through a bad time in the public sector," he said, referring to the 20 to 30 per cent savings central government has asked councils to find over the next three years.

"In reality, most of this year across the public sector has been about cuts."

However, Evans - who is also president of the membership association for public sector IT professionals, Socitm - holds out greater hope for...

...technology's role in government in future, saying that as public bodies need to find cheaper ways to deliver services they will start to look to technology to deliver that.

"As we look ahead to the future, we need to turn more towards the change agendas than to cuts," he said.

"I'm more hopeful than I've ever been in my career [about the change agenda]. I think we've got more traction around the concept of IT-enabled change than has ever been the case."

Despite some bumps along the way, the Birmingham City Council transformation programme Evans headed is in many ways a poster child for what IT-enabled changes can achieve in government.

Birmingham City Council

Birmingham City Council is halfway through a 10-year business transformation programme that was being managed by EvansPhoto: Birmingham City Council

By the project's halfway point earlier this year, the project had delivered £244.2m worth of savings to the council, and the changes it has put in place have cut the cost of running the council by close to £100m each year.

Technology has played a vital role in these changes - from an SAP system that has integrated the council's finance, procurement and performance management systems to new CRM software that provides customers with an online overview of their dealings with the council - cutting the number of times they need to contact the authority by phone or in person.

"We have demonstrated that a radical change programme is feasible and deliverable on a massive scale," Evans said.

"We are now saving around £100m per year through the transformation programme. I think I'm leaving the programme in very robust health."

Not that the transformation programme has been all smooth sailing for Evans. During its lifetime, councillors have attacked it for failing to deliver savings as quickly as originally planned, staff have criticised it for not improving the way the council is run and early technical problems were blamed for delays in handling housing benefits.

"There are things we could have done better - I don't think we got the right level of engagement with our staff in the first place," Evans said.

"We hit the ground running and failed to notice that some weren't running with us. We got better at that but we were always trying to recover from that poor start. If I were to do it again I would do it differently [in that respect]."

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