A proposed training academy for government IT managers should raise project standards and develop employee career prospects, reports Michael Cross
Boot camps aren't just for young offenders and royalty. The government is planning to put its IT managers through a standard training regime as part of its effort to reduce the number of computer-assisted policy embarrassments. Like its counterparts at Dartmouth and Sandhurst, the proposed government IT academy will build an esprit de corps to accompany graduates throughout their careers.
It is the brainchild of Ian Watmore, the government's IT tsar, who wants to create a new calibre of government IT manager. "When people join the IT profession, they join to have a career," he says. "What we in government do today is recruit them into a job."
A career structure will encourage good people to stay in the public service by offering a route to the top. Watmore's plan implicitly challenges the tradition - a running joke in the television comedy Yes, Minister - that the best qualification for modern public administration is an Oxford degree in dead languages. When one of the show's few competent Whitehall characters was asked why he wasn't running a department, he replied: "Alas, I'm an expert."
Several enquiries into IT project disasters have suggested that it would be a good idea to put experts in charge. Last year, a hard-hitting report by a Commons committee recommended that the Department for Work and Pensions recruit "sufficient numbers of skilled project managers with knowledge of IT projects to negotiate contracts and to monitor their IT suppliers effectively".
The department says it is taking steps in that direction. Across government, however, there are still not enough managers with the right expertise. One problem is that a senior civil servant will typically run a big IT project only once in their career before being promoted - or departing for the private sector.
Watmore thinks the public service employs about 30,000 IT specialists: 10,000 in central government and 20,000 in local councils, the NHS and other services. Turning this collection of individuals into a profession is one theme in a government-wide IT strategy due to be published this autumn. The strategy will also cover ways of transforming the machinery of government through IT, and computer security.
The strategy will recognise that 10 years of IT outsourcing has left parts of government unable to act as an "intelligent customer". Watmore, as a former managing director of Accenture's UK operations, was responsible for taking over some of the largest government IT functions. He does not intend to turn the clock back to running systems in-house. In fact, "if we have more skills, arguably we would need fewer people".
The academy idea is still at an early stage, he says. "We're looking at some form of government IT academy system through which we bring new recruits. Common and consistent training run on a pan-government basis."
The academy may even be a virtual institution. Watmore says: "We are exploring all the options. It's important that we have some form of unified training."
Graduates will have a career path to become top-level chief information officers, the kind of people who in private industry would sit on the board. "There's no reason why that should stop there, and the chief information officer should not go on to be a permanent secretary," Watmore says.
The new approach poses several dangers. One is that fast-tracking a cadre of bright young things will embitter the generation now in charge. Another is that graduates will be poached by the private sector, which has its own problems in creating a coherent career structure.
The good news for government IT managers is that they are no longer always the poor relations. Pay for government contractors rose by one third last year, according to a survey commissioned by the Association of Technology Staffing Companies.
Watmore says there is a good reason why British government IT projects are risky - they are gigantic, not just in comparison with the private sector but with their counterparts overseas. "The UK government is unusual in that it has systems that run at a national level on a citizen base of 60m people, so its scale and complexity is unusual. When you go to other countries, similar systems are run at a state level."
The Work and Pensions Select Committee warned last year that it may take more than professional skills to reduce the run of disasters. It blamed ministers for committing their departments "to projects that are completely unworkable".
Although civil servants are supposed to sound warnings of risks, few are brave enough to do so. Even an expert can find it hard to say: "No, minister."
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