The government ICT strategy sets out goals for a complete overhaul of the way the public sector approaches IT. But the report’s sketchy detail might suggest the government is biting off more than it can chew, says’s Nick Heath.

The devil, it’s said, is in the detail. Yet there was a notable absence of the nitty-gritty in key parts of Wednesday’s government ICT strategy.

The document outlined plenty of good intentions – with pledges to adopt open standards and cloud computing, and limit the size of IT contracts.

Yet in important areas, such as the move to cloud computing and improving IT skills in government, the strategy offers little new information on how these goals will be achieved, and scant detail on progress towards long-standing objectives such as shared networks.

Anyone reading parts of yesterday’s strategy could have been forgiven for thinking they’d gone back in time – either to May 2010 when the coalition first laid out its IT plans, or to January 2010 when the Labour government expressed similar goals on cloud computing, green IT and common desktops.

Targets are set in the new strategy document but in important areas, such as cloud computing, ICT capability and greening government tech, these targets are focused on producing yet more documents, in the form of implementation plans and strategies.

Perhaps the reason the fine detail is not becoming clearer in certain areas is that the government has found delivering the meat of IT reform more challenging than it originally envisaged.

Government IT strategy

The government IT strategy is disappointingly light on detail in key areas of public sector technology policyPhoto: Shutterstock

For evidence, look no further than the government missing its deadlines for producing guidance on the £100m limit on government IT projects and for publishing all new tender documents worth more than £10,000 online – both of which were pushed further back yesterday.

Of course, the other reason for the government’s reticence could be the sheer scale of the reform that is being proposed. With aspirations to do no less than transform the way the public sector buys, delivers and manages technology, it is going to be difficult for the government to realise its ambitions across the board.

One strategy aim that crystallises the scale of the challenge facing the government is the creation of a pan-government register of IT assets – a job that could prove tricky given that Francis Maude is on record saying “the quality of government data in many respects is lamentably poor and inconsistent”.

That’s not to say there is an absence of detail everywhere. Notable exceptions include pledges to implement a government app store within 24 months, the goal of agreeing mandatory open technical standards within a year and starting the compilation of a register of government IT assets within six months.

Yet the goals laid out in this week’s ICT strategy are rather more modest than those of its predecessor.

Labour’s strategy last year aimed to reduce the 8,000 or so datacentres in the government’s IT estate to about 12. This year’s strategy aspires to cut datacentre costs by 35 per cent.

And the 2010 strategy’s goal of using the Public Sector Network to cut £500m from annual IT spend by 2014 is this year replaced with an aim of delivering the first instances of the Public Sector Network within 12 months.

After the delays in the publication of the ICT strategy, it would have been useful to have more explanation of how and when these ambitious reforms will be achieved.

Otherwise, the public has to take Maude’s word for it when he says the government plans to use IT to “ensure that frontline services have the tools to do their job to deliver effective public services”.

And given the government’s track record on successful IT reform, that’s a hard line to swallow.