Having been in public sector IT for more than 14 years - at North Tyneside and Durham County councils - Phil Jackman has worked through times of plenty and times of famine. Our sister site Computing talked to him recently about the future of the CIO role, but he also had a lot to say about his time at the forefront of government IT.
The government's austerity policies, implemented around the time of the 2008 financial crash, remain in place. During the 'age of austerity,' public sector budgets and services have been cut to the bone - but that wasn't always a bad thing.
"Austerity was both a restraint and a liberator," said Jackman. "It allowed us to do things that we'd have never got away with in times of plentiful money." As an example, he talks about his work to replace all of the personal printers at Durham CC with multi-function devices (MFDs). The project saved the council about £500,000, and under austerity that was a "no-brainer." If a firm had that money spare, though, they might be tempted to avoid the hassle and keep what they already have.
Another example was an automatic letter folding and stuffing machine. It saved the council about 30 pence on each letter, which over two years totalled about £1.8 million on a £140,000 investment. "Nobody noticed the money they were spending, because nobody had a budget for that," said Jackman.
"[Austerity] meant that you had to look at the easy things, you had to look at the more difficult things and then you had to look at the really difficult things," he concluded.
These changes were relatively easy to implement, because Jackman was so committed to them. Others have been much more difficult; the public sector has a lot of momentum, and changing course can be difficult. The sector is both very good and very bad at consulting and engaging on projects: sometimes there are too many people involved, and sometimes too few - it's about getting the balance right. Relatively few people need to be consulted about upgrading printers, but when it comes to replacing a social care system, hundreds of people need to work on the project. C-level executives, especially, are not always as connected to technical change as they need to be.
On that topic, Jackman said that the public sector drastically needs to change to modernise - but so does the private sector:
"The whole world is going through an unprecedented period of change; I don't believe we've seen anything yet. Particularly in the public sector - things like robotic process automation, artificial intelligence, augmented reality - they're going to fundamentally change what goes on."
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