Thanks to the Brexit vote, the public sector IT community faces an environment where the only certainty is uncertainty. As the machinery of government is reshaped to negotiate and deliver a new role for the UK in the world, it is becoming harder to get stressed and distracted ministers and mandarins to think about much else. As I will argue, however, politicians should be paying very careful attention to technology. Here’s why.
No-one knows which form Brexit will take, and there are many possibilities, so its precise impact on the public sector in the four nations of the UK is as yet unknown. Departments tasked with scoping and delivering Brexit must start systems reviews and costing change options now, so that ministers have the facts to hand when they start to evaluate political options. In just one example, the Brexit model supposedly favoured by new International Trade minister Liam Fox involves leaving the EU customs union. Someone should be asking what the systems implications, dependencies, costs and timescales of re-introducing hard customs borders with the EU are. Those facts could affect the political calculation.
The lesson of most big government IT projects is that transactional systems tend to set government policy in concrete. Change can be so slow and expensive that, by the time it has been delivered, the world has moved on and the new policy is obsolete. Like it or not, the pivotal role of IT systems in facilitating or constraining government action marks a crucial difference between the UK of 2016 and that of 1973. Yet too many politicians and policy wonks still think of IT as the uninteresting delivery phase for their brilliant ideas. This attitude needs to be challenged. An idea that cannot survive the delivery phase is arguably not a brilliant one.
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Brexit certainly complicates life for government CTOs and CDOs. Government policy on everything from devolution to borders to farm payments could be up in the air for years. Digital and technology projects linked to policy will have to wait for a clearer picture.
But there are also reasons for Whitehall technologists to be cheerful. Rather than waiting for the green light on projects that might never see the light of day, CTOs should take the opportunity to fix their underlying IT infrastructures. There’s no good reason to delay getting to grips with cloud, enterprise architecture, security, enterprise-wide data management and governance. With flexible, low cost infrastructure and skilled development teams in place, government technologists can be agile when the time comes for them to implement new policies. It’s time to get into shape for the day when politicians and the public finally decide what Brexit means.