UK Budget Cuts and Public Sector IT

  • 22-Jun-2010

In the UK today, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer  George Osbourne will announce his emergency budget details.  The one thing we know in advance is that this will contain some of the most severe cuts in recent history.  Germany is set to follow the trend, and in time much of Europe too. Plus you can add the Government Spending Review, and many IT budgets in the UK public sector have already been frozen. Many more will be frozen or cut altogether after today.  Though the moves to bring national deficits under control may make macroeconomic sense, they will nonetheless come at a high price, not least for Information Managers.

The move to "Citizen Management" and "eGovernment" have been far ahead of similar movements here in North America, but with that drive over the past decade has also come an unrealistic set of expectations. Information systems are now under better control today than ever, but maintaining an equilibrium in a world where information frequently doubles in size all requires enormous investment.

That investment will not be forthcoming in many instances for the next few years. If that were the totality of the Information Managers lot, then things would really not be so terrible. But a big impact of the cuts will be on public (and politicians') expectations regarding access to information -- and will likely cause more grief. 

Demands have never been higher. For example, FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests have rocketed in the UK, and they are becoming ever more spurious and costly to fulfill.  Many FOIA requests come from the same small number of newspapers and reporters and amount to little more than wild fishing exercises.  The perception seems to be that if a government department cannot instantly locate and turn over requested information, then they must be trying to hide something. The reality is more prosaic: it is a hugely costly, complex, and tedious process to comb every electronic nook and cranny to unearth information.  From public officials I have spoken to in both local and national government, the reality is that come the cuts, decisions will have to be made whether to undertake essential day to day work, or whether to take staff away from these tasks and minister to FOIA requests. 

Likewise new web-based citizen access portals will in many cases not go ahead at all, or if they do will be unable to afford to make such portals DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) compliant, and accessible to all.

What the move to eGovernement in the UK has shown us is that though there are great benefits to be gained in terms of empowering and providing access via the web to government services to citizens, that this comes at a high cost.  The myth that electronic is by default cheaper has long been discredited. Government departments large and small are struggling to meet an ever longer list of regulatory and political demands, with an ever decreasing budget, whilst dealing with the unremitting growth of information volumes. Something will have to give.

Smarter government employees are already constructing their defenses, painstakingly detailing exactly why they can no longer deliver some services, meet requirements, regulations, and requests.  From what I can see, the politicians making the cuts have not quite grasped the fact that the "do more with less" boundaries were breached some time ago. That moving forward, their needs to be a recognition that the cuts will not just hurt, they will also cause damage. The equation therefore has to be one of short term pain plus mid term loss equals long term gain?

Yet there is money to be saved, Governments around the world are profilgate spenders on technology. The best place to my mind, both in the US as well as the UK, for saving public IT spending would be in identifying shelfware, renegotiating maintenance contracts, and reassessing the value of ELA's (enterprise license agreements). I have no doubt at all that doing so would deliver far more savings than canceling or cutting back on essential information management projects.

So whether you think these cuts are right and justified, or simply "reckless" as the Labour opposition states, the fact is they are going to happen. And as a public sector information manager you will almost certainly be impacted, yet that does not mean that you are powerless. Stalled or cancelled projects have consequences and it will be your job to detail those consequences, and where applicable to redirect cost saving efforts to more relevant and worthy targets where spending has been truly wasteful.

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