What private businesses could learn from the public sector

Info sharing works best when co-operating rather than competing
Written by Mike Mackay, Contributor

Info sharing works best when co-operating rather than competing

Although the public sector has suffered some visible and embarrassing tech disasters, Mike Mackay insists it has some great strengths in rolling out IT systems.

The public sector is in the unfortunate position that its past failures to implement technology projects to time and to budget have made powerful and disparaging headlines. Sadly its many successes are less attractive to the media and have therefore received much less coverage.

However, there are some things the public sector is very good at; it may surprise some to hear that a key strength is in information sharing. There are a lot of good lessons that the public sector's approach to this discipline can teach to other organisations. Probably the most fundamental is its willingness to co-operate with others rather than compete. It is this ethos of co-operation that is the key to the future success of its technology implementations.

Effectively, the public sector has a distributed set of entities, departments or organisations that need to communicate effectively on various topics and issues. This requires a level of system interconnectivity and security to be put into place that complies with national standards yet enables information to be shared effectively and easily.

In the past IT projects have placed too much emphasis on building monolithic systems based on proprietary protocols, central control of stored information and a ring fence approach to securing the network. It's this approach that has caused the most significant problems in the past and the reason for many large scale projects failing to meet their objectives.

In many ways the prevalence of IP has enabled the public sector to walk a different and more effective path than the private realm.

When I was CIO at the Youth Justice Board, for example, we delivered a number of highly effective technology projects through our Wiring Up Youth Justice programme.

We realised that a radical new approach was required to improve existing systems without busting open the public purse. The way forward was to move from using open information on individually secured networks to a system where secured information is communicated across an open network (the internet) that already connects our many organisations. This way, the issues of accessing the network are no longer relevant.

The important challenge then is in securing the data. By applying security at the end points using encryption techniques and equipment, we were able to overcome this hurdle and provide a level of security much greater than most private networks.

What Wiring Up Youth Justice has managed to create is a range of small pieces, loosely joined, locally owned and nationally steered. The key has been to secure the data, not the ring fence around it. The two most compelling reasons to take this style of implementation are speed and cost.

If the private sector were to take a more co-operative approach to information sharing, it too might reap the rewards.

Mike Mackay is an adviser to the Criminal Justice System of England and Wales' CIO Board.

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