It is not good enough just to say government departments must work together over technology. The time has come for a corporate-like governance function in government, says Nick White.
It is extraordinary that in these days of advanced digital networks and seamless global information sharing, governments and public services continue to struggle to join up their systems and information at national and local level.
Many UK national technology projects have failed or have run into budget overruns and delay. If there were some blueprint within which these projects fitted, there would be less opportunity for making and repeating mistakes. But beyond the avoidance of mishap, the real benefit would come from more efficient and effective use of consistent information.
Of course, there are those who actively seek to block information-sharing, for fear that it would invite misuse and more governmental snooping. You only have to look at the furore over the identity card scheme to see how such things trigger strong emotions.
Better planning and management
The spectre of Big Brother continues to loom large in the imagination. But those fears are no excuse for preventing better overall planning and management of systems, networks and information. Next-generation networks provide the ideal opportunity to remedy this failing.
Imagine a similar negative attitude in a multinational. The result would be — and, indeed, used to be — uncoordinated technology investments and strategies, in which the left hand did not know what the right was doing.
But now the practice of using privileged information to preserve turf power has been replaced by using common architectures of open systems linked by modern networks to cut operating costs, speed up implementation of new applications, and enable the exploitation of knowledge and consistency in key decision-making. The role of the chief technology officer is now crucial in enabling joined-up corporate business processes.
Government departments at national and local level invest heavily in technology. Their IT and network strategies must ensure that interoperability between departments and agencies is facilitated with maximum effectiveness and minimum operational costs.
Shared tech thinking
But do they talk to each other enough on this issue? What shared tech thinking and network planning is there between the Department of Transport, HM Revenue & Customs, Health, Education, Employment, Defence, FCO, the Justice Department and indeed with local government? One hopes they are not all individually tendering for independent next-generation networks to different architectures and standards.
There is a strong case here for a corporate-like governance function in government. The consultation on the role of telecoms regulator Ofcom prompts one to wonder if this is an area where it might help, by co-ordinating the processes of network planning in national and local government.
Ofcom would, of course, have to retain technology neutrality and could not intervene in the government procurement process. Ofcom did perform a useful role in 'helping' BT consult...
...with other network operators and users, including providers of public utility services, in the original 21CN planning. That process may have helped BT decide on the redirection of its plans, which it adopted.
The Digital Britain report could be another potential vehicle of strategic guidance, which might be used as a driver for the effort. Its national status and scope provides a context that almost demands a kind of government chief technology officer function, which is a significant part of the solution being adopted in the US.
President Obama's administration, initially through its transition team and more specifically now it is in office, is trying to make such change happen. In close liaison with the Federal Communications Commission, it is seeking to establish a coherent overall plan of trans-sector thinking for technology.
A report entitled Big think strategies — leading to smart communities, produced through Paul Budde Associates in Australia and using a global network of high-level experts, was well received as input to this effort.
Coherent technology infrastructure
The US sees an opportunity to create more coherent federal and state technology infrastructure. So why stop at trying to do the same thing for just the UK?
At the Ofcom-BT consultations on 21CN, the International Telecommunications Users Group asked repeatedly what consultation and joint planning there had been with other European Union member states, through their incumbent operators and regulators.
Without such an initiative, business users of networks across the EU face 27 different incompatible next-generation network migrations, leading to a new fragmented patchwork of 27 member-state tech islands.
The response was not very encouraging — there had been limited consultation and no joint planning. The excuse was that it was hard enough to plan migrating one nation of 60 million people. Co-ordinating 27 similar projects would add too much complexity.
Strategic EU planning
While this point may be a fair, and there are many examples of how adding a further level of complexity to a technology project has made it unmanageable, Europe should at least consider how its infrastructure could be improved by strategic technology and network planning at EU level.
The European Commission's Information Society Directorate is the natural place for this responsibility and it already has an EU telecoms regulatory framework.
Communications networks have been described as the world's trade routes as long ago as the Maitland Report of the 1980s, and as the arteries of the body corporate in which information is its lifeblood. If the organs of government are its departments, the body politic has its own sets of arteries and veins for each organ — potentially with different blood groups in each system.
I cannot imagine human beings would survive long if they were designed on the same basis. We would need lots of hearts, for a start.
Nick White is executive vice president of the International Telecommunications Users Group and a Communications Management Association strategic board member. He has spent more than 35 years in international telecoms, having worked for various multinationals, including Reuters, Midland Bank and Unilever. White is now an independent consultant in telecoms regulatory affairs, representing user interests at national and international level.