The IT industry likes the government’s direction of travel, its trade association’s public sector director Sureyya Cansoy tells Matt Ross – but businesses will be happier still when the coalition’s activity turns into real progress
When Sureyya Cansoy moved to London from her native Cyprus, the weather and the culture initially threw her. “I absolutely hated London at the beginning,” she recalls. “It was dull and grey and everybody was miserable, and I thought: ‘There’s no way I’ll stay here’.”
As she got stuck into an MSc, however, her feelings changed. “Here I am still, 12 years later – and I love it,” she says, glancing out of the window at the sunlit plane trees on Bloomsbury’s Russell Square. “I made a lot of friends doing my Masters, and half of them stayed here. Also, it’s a beautiful city. And in Turkish culture, people feel they have the right to intervene in your life, whereas in western culture you do whatever you want as long as you don’t harm others. I quite like that.”
In her job as the director for public sector at IT industry trade association Intellect, Cansoy’s brief centres on the technologies and processes that frame the relationship between the IT industry and government; but dig a little deeper, and it’s clear that this isn’t all about IT capabilities or contract management. At root, that troubled and complex relationship is shaped by the same factors that first repelled, then attracted Cansoy to London: cultural issues.
Take online public services: asked to name the obstacles to ‘channel shift’, Cansoy starts with the technical challenges. “You have all sorts of government websites, and it’s quite confusing,” she comments. “I know that government is quite keen to consolidate them into a single portal”. The second big challenge, she continues, is “identity assurance: how can you identify yourself securely?” (See our feature)
After that, though, we’re straight into cultural issues. “The people most in need of public services are also the people who are most excluded in terms of technology and the internet: elderly people, people who don’t have much money,” she says. Poorer groups tend to use smartphones rather than PCs, she adds, so online services must be accessible through a range of channels; and then there’s the need to assist those unfamiliar with computers to navigate the internet – and the requirement to keep on serving those who, for whatever reason, struggle to adopt internet services.
Many online services rest on better data-sharing between government’s various arms – and here, there are technical and legal issues concerning system compatibility and data protection. But asked which of all these challenges is the most intractable, Cansoy returns to culture: “People are really very conscious of their privacy here in the UK; quite sensitive about who has access to their data,” she says. “Government is looking to tackle the technical issues. The culture or privacy point is more difficult to tackle; it’s much more emotional.”
Culture change required
Like the general public, civil servants will have to change their mindset on IT issues if the government’s plans for a major shift to online services are to bear fruit. For a start, says Cansoy, “when government looks at IT, sometimes people look at it as an end in itself, as a technology project. We need a greater understanding that it’s not about the technology: it’s about business change, with technology as an enabling tool.” A lack of that understanding in government, she adds, “drives all sorts of behaviours that cause difficulties”.
So civil servants must focus on the ends – and be more open-minded about the appropriate means, approaching IT companies for ideas rather than going straight to tender with the default option of a big new computer. “The technology industry needs to be engaged in the debate much earlier in the lifecycle of a policy, project or programme: we want more engagement from policy formulation onwards,” says Cansoy, “and I think it’s very encouraging that [Cabinet Office minister] Francis Maude keeps referring to that.”
Indeed, Cansoy does believe that key coalition ministers – Maude in particular – have the right ideas about how to improve the public sector’s use of IT. “This government understands the potential of technology to not only cut costs, but also reform the way services are delivered and people are engaged with public services,” she says. “If you look at the government’s ICT strategy, at what the [Cabinet Office’s] Efficiency and Reform Group is doing on areas such as procurement and supplier management, you can see that they really do get it – but it does take time to implement change on the ground, and for departments, agencies and the wider public sector to fully exploit that kind of change.”
Cansoy is clearly both optimistic that the coalition government has the nous and the drive to push through positive change, and rather patient. Indeed, she’s had plenty of opportunities to work on her patience at Intellect: the organisation has been running a ‘concept viability service’ for nine years, in a bid to “solve the problem of projects going wrong because there wasn’t enough dialogue and engagement with the industry before a project formally started.”
A testing ground for ideas
Aimed at policymakers, the service offers feedback from IT suppliers on how departments can achieve their objectives. About 100 ‘concept viability workshops’ have been held to date; however, Cansoy only cites “one workshop, quite a few years ago, when at the end of the process the government department in question decided to cancel the project because... they hadn’t really thought through how it was going to work”. Challenged on the service’s failure to prevent the numerous public sector IT failures since 2003, Cansoy argues that some departments didn’t make use of it. “There’s also a point about when the industry gives you feedback, how much you listen to it,” she adds. “Talking to the industry is important – but hearing what the industry tells you is also important, isn’t it?”
There’s a gap in Cansoy’s argument, though: civil servants may have been unrealistic in what they were trying to buy, but Intellect’s members said they were able to meet the government’s needs. “If anything goes wrong, both sides should be held accountable,” she responds. “Often, the reasons why these projects go wrong are really complicated, but I’d like to think that those companies putting themselves forward to deliver those projects do so with good intentions.”
Okay, these suppliers may not have been trying to scam the government – but weren’t they foolish to think they could build these systems? “Well, maybe they didn’t consider all the factors”, says Cansoy. She points out the reputational damage suffered by IT companies when major projects go awry, and adds that “we’ve seen companies walking away when they realise early on that things could go quite pear-shaped, taking the decision despite the fact that they have invested a lot of time and effort and money in bidding already.”
That bidding process, Cansoy argues, is one factor behind the dysfunctionalities of public sector IT. Again, she emphasises civil servants’ tendency to concentrate on buying the kit, rather than using it: “A lot of people focus on procurement in isolation: ‘I’ve done a successful procurement, my job is done!’ But we should see procurement as an enabler for better delivery.”
What’s more, she adds, the procurement process itself is “very long, very burdensome and very costly. Making the process simpler and quicker and cheaper for both sides would help in achieving successful projects.” In part, the problem lies with the standard terms and conditions that departments are asked to attach to new contracts: they’re sensible in themselves, she says, but civil servants “take them out of context, they gold-plate them, and at times they make it quite difficult for small companies to bid for projects worth a couple of million. I’ve seen small companies walk out of negotiations on the basis of the terms and conditions.”
The coalition has already made some progress in streamlining procurement, Cansoy says: it’s piloting ‘lean’ procurement techniques; standardising pre-qualification questionnaires to reduce the duplication of work for bidders (and eliminating them for some small schemes); and offering support to small business bidders with a legitimate grievance. What’s more, the tightening of central controls over major projects will reduce the time and money wasted on misled procurements, she says, “because where government thinks the case has not been made successfully, it stops projects before it comes to the procurement stage.”
Nonetheless, despite the government’s rhetoric about using procurement to support small businesses, Cansoy says the changed approach is not yet boosting SMEs’ bottom lines. “SMEs are very optimistic about the messages coming out of government, but we’re not seeing many coming forward saying: ‘This has changed, and I’ve won this new business as a result’,” she says. “They see these moves as very positive; but still waiting.”
Readers may have noticed a certain amount of repetition creeping into the picture; Cansoy certainly has. “There’s an interesting pattern here,” she says. “The centre of government, the people in the Efficiency and Reform Group, get it. People in the heart of government departments get it. The issues arise when it comes to implementing these things on the ground.”
“I understand it takes time,” she continues. “It’ll be interesting to see how much difference the tighter control that this government is trying to impose...will make. We’ll have to see by the end of the [parliamentary] term how much things have changed.”
Skills in agility
The government’s use of ‘agile’ project development techniques may help improve success rates in IT projects, Cansoy believes – though she warns about the risks of fragmentation if this tool is combined with greater local control over delivery, asking: “How do you ensure that a certain level of standardisation is required? That different systems are able to talk to each other, share information?”
Perhaps more important is the development of skills within the civil service – not just IT skills, says Cansoy, but also procurement and project management. In the past, she believes, government brought in such skills by hiring consultants and recruiting from the private sector – and “perhaps they haven’t always had a clear development path for people, so they’ve lost ambitious people to the private sector because of that… Now there’s a recognition that those skills and capabilities can be developed internally if you really nurture people, help them develop themselves and train them properly.”
Another factor that may support better IT management is the government’s appointment of ‘crown representatives’: directors charged with acting as cross-departmental leads on government’s relationships with individual suppliers. Cansoy is pleased that major IT companies are now “able to engage with the right level people in government,” she says. “In the previous system, there were a lot of absentees from discussions and meetings, and companies sometimes used to put forward their most senior people but not have the right-level person to engage with from the government side.”
However, Intellect clearly sees the crown reps as something of a threat. “We wouldn’t like to see collective engagement with industry neglected as a result of the one-to-one engagement with companies that government has,” says Cansoy, noting that the reps only work with a handful of the biggest companies. Government “can’t talk to thousands of companies,” she argues. “There’s a role for trade associations – not just in the technology space, but in other industries as well – to help government talk to the wider industry.”
Continuity in change
Nonetheless, the appointment of crown representatives may help address another of the IT sector’s bugbears: the tendency for civil service managers to leave before projects have been completed, weakening continuity of management and blurring accountability. “What we often see in these kind of projects is that one person is responsible for developing the policy idea, one person is responsible during the procurement process, and another is brought in during delivery,” says Cansoy. This, she argues, means that “it isn’t always easy to point to exactly where the project went wrong and which person was responsible. Consistency and continuity are key to making a project successful.”
On that basis, is Cansoy worried that government chief information officer Joe Harley, having just delivered the government’s IT strategy, is now retiring; or that his deputy Bill McCluggage is also leaving government? Sounding less than convinced of her own words, Cansoy responds that “you can argue that he may be feeling that he’s delivered the strategy itself, and put the wheels in motion for others to implement the strategy’s various elements.” But surely the basements of Whitehall are filled with dusty, shelved reports by retiring mandarins? Cansoy recovers: “The good thing about this strategy, which I don’t think we’ve had before, is the ministerial commitment,” she replies. “Francis Maude has been very close to the whole ICT agenda, as no other minister has in the past. You can argue that in Francis Maude, we have that consistency in leadership: his grasp of the issues is impressive and his commitment is very obvious. I’d argue that the minister’s commitment might be more important in this case than the civil servants’, because if the minister’s committed then civil servants have to follow through”.
So Cansoy believes that Maude has the commitment and traction to push through significant reform of the government’s handling of IT, procurement and project management; and she’s being determinedly patient while the vast ship of government is painstakingly turned. Indeed, once all this cultural, process and organisational reform has been achieved, she suggests, we may be able to get on to the really interesting stuff.
During the new coalition’s negotiations with its major IT suppliers, Cansoy recalls, the government cut the costs of its existing contracts by £800m, and improved its cross-departmental supplier management. But the talks also had a third purpose: the coalition, she says, asked suppliers for “suggestions about how government could radically change the way it works with the help of technology – and I think that’s what excites the companies the most, because that’s the bit that they never had the opportunity to put to a minister before.”
Now, Cansoy is asking – in her optimistic, patient way – what happened to all those ideas. “I know that the Cabinet Office was collating the recommendations from all those companies, and looking at them – and I think it will be very interesting to see how many of those make it to real-life implementation,” she says. “I appreciate it’s not an overnight thing, but I’d be very interested to see how that is progressing.”