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Fashionable philosophies: ideas influencing government IT

Michael Cross Published 18 August 2009

Fashionable philosophies

Michael Cross looks at how two sets of ideas could influence government IT

Whether we're blogging, writing for a national newspaper or just nattering in the pub, most Britons feel qualified to offer some analysis of the nation's public sector IT infrastructure. This is followed, usually, by a pithy opinion about what should be done to improve it.

There's good news for such saloon bar pundits. Two fashionable, easy-to-grasp new philosophies are likely to gain traction over the next few months, and both have strong populist and political appeal.

Fashionable philosophy number one we'll call "Let's get stuff free off the web." Here, the idea is that the software that most public bodies need for most of their functions is already available somewhere, open source and for free. The extreme example, which made it in to the It's Our Data report published by the Centre for Policy Studies in July, is to replace the NHS Care Records Service with free-to-user web services such as Google Health.

Although this proposal is most unlikely to find its way onto any party manifesto, there's certainly some traction in more modest applications. Anyone for a Facebook group rather than a corporate website?

Fashionable philosophy number two is less intrinsically populist, not least because in the short term at least it could push up the costs of building IT, but will have strong appeal in some quarters. We'll call it "Build it like the Eiffel Tower." The idea here is that large IT systems should be assembled according to sound engineering values rather than on the "promise big, build quick and debug later" tradition that permeates the web.

The concept has been kicking around for some time, but a new study, Values in IT , makes a compelling and topical case. A group drawn from the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Institution of Engineering and Technology and the British Computer Society argue that methods are well established for constructing error-free IT systems. The secret is not so much in testing but by building from secure foundations in intrinsically secure steps.

Building bug-free software is only part of what entails. The report proposes that whole projects be run on the lines of "engineering values". This is a challenge.

"Unlike structural or civil engineering projects, where visual plans can be drawn up and shared, for IT projects there is no well established formalism for externalising software design," it says. "This means that the stakeholders have difficulty in communicating and reasoning about requirements and in determining how achievable a particular design might be."

A possible example of this is the NHS National Programme for IT in England circa 2003, when it was assumed that acceptable systems for handling electronic patient records at the point of care were available more or less off the shelf.

Unsurprisingly, the study's main recommendation is that big projects should be put under the control of chartered professionals. Such a person is defined as "a professional who designs and develops systems (in any medium or materials), using methods that justify a high degree of confidence that the costs and risks will be controlled and that the resulting system will have the properties required by its users". It also involves protecting customers from unrealistic expectations.

Is this requirement not catered for in government already, by the IT professionalism strand of Transformational Government? Not so, the engineering values study implies. It notes a confusion between the skills required to make use of IT within an organisation and those needed to develop new systems.

In the latter case, developers "need deep technical understanding of computing and communications technology, knowledge of computing science and engineering methods, and the creativity to combine their skills and knowledge to create a cost-effective and dependable solution to a set of complex requirements."

Restricting development work to such individuals is light years from the "get it out there and let the community fix it" mentality of the web entrepreneur, on whose expertise our fashionable philosophy number one is based.
In the hugely public and increasingly politicised world of government IT, which philosophy should dominate?

The answer, of course, is a blend of the two: the government's big mission critical databases and networks must be constructed to the highest engineering standards, while for systems to support citizen facing interactions where failure is of little consequence, a "get stuff free off the web" approach will be appropriate. The difficult bit, surely, is deciding where to draw the line.

From the September 2009 issue of GC magazine .

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