The CIO (Chief Information Officer) job title has grown in popularity over the last decade; we are now firmly in the information age and this presents the public sector with both opportunity and challenge. At the same time, austerity measures combined with a growing population has put pressure on public sector organisations to deliver more for less. There are many opportunities to transform and improve services, but perhaps none more so than harnessing the power of technology as a key enabler. Outgoing Executive Director of Digital in the Cabinet Office, Mike Bracken, commented “There is a salient lesson for every institution in every sector, which is this: the internet always wins. Government is no different. We ignore that at our peril.”

“the internet always wins. Government is no different. We ignore that at our peril.” – Mike Bracken

Many organisations are using this shift to replace traditional heads of IT with business focused CIOs, however according to a recent iGov survey only three per cent recognise them as transformation focused business leaders. The challenge for CIOs is that they are expected to maintain and lead IT departments whilst delivering change and organisational improvements. Issues arise when CIOs don’t get the support they require to transform an organisation, and subsequently fail to become the business leaders they are capable of being.

[easy-tweet tweet=”#CIOs are expected to maintain and lead #IT departments whilst delivering change “]

The challenge

Public sector projects are often more difficult to drive forward and implement than their equivalent in the private sector. Research by McKinsey and Company found that IT projects driving public sector change were six times more likely to experience cost overruns and 20 per cent more likely to run over schedule than similar private sector projects. With the right leadership in place that understands challenges and stakeholders, delays and cost overruns can be reduced. In the accompanying report to this research, analysts recommend ‘hiring and nurturing the right talent’ specifically commending the UK government policy of seeking to attract highly talented individuals into leadership roles.

If we examine some of the failed public sector projects in recent years, lack of leadership has been a contributing factor. One of the most high profile has been the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Universal Credit, a scheme designed to replace some of the current out of work benefits and improve efficiency in supporting job-seekers. Despite the well thought out plan of uniting a number of benefits systems, the programme was labelled a £700 million flop by the Public Accounts Committee which criticised the DWP for its “alarmingly weak management” of the project. The issue with this particular project was that money was spent on IT systems that didn’t work as they should, eventually being totally written off, highlighting a clear failure in leadership.

The fact that just three per cent in the public sector recognise their CIOs as a driver of transformation is concerning, but provides an opportunity

Strong public sector CIOs combine IT expertise with deep understanding of business needs. Many will also have experience in the private sector and be used to operating within strict budget guidelines. Giving these leaders the power to drive change must be a priority for organisations. In turn, they will empower those around them to deliver solutions based on a clear vision and operational targets.

One successful project, that I’ve seen recently, is the transformation of the workplace at Epic CIC, an employee led mutual focused on providing support services in the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Led by a visionary CIO in Jamie Holyland, Epic was able to transform the way they work by introducing Google Apps to foster collaboration and Chrome devices to support mobile and flexible working. The project will save £140,000 a year, but equally important, the system is shaping the services Epic can provide and the way it provides them.  For example, it can seamlessly integrate with technologies such as social media that will be vital to developing their services in the future.

It isn’t just small public sector organisations in which CIOs can deliver real change either. One much larger and particularly successful project was in the Department for International Development (DFID). A unique department, DFID were looking for an efficient way to manage the distribution of aid worldwide, that would allow for regular engagement with a mix of different partners. They eventually chose to use Google sites for this project, providing workspaces where staff and local partners can share and access documents, no matter where they are in the world. Starting with 40 sites initially, DFID is adding more sites and adopting other aspects of Google Apps technology as time goes on. Through intelligent leadership, DFID was able to introduce an efficient tool to help them improve aid delivery.

Delivering more for less is a target being pushed from the top down in the public sector. Unlike traditional ‘heads of IT’ who were primarily placed in supporting roles in organisations, CIOs are expected to drive change. Experienced CIO Steve Day commented that IT leaders in the public sector now need to “inspire those around them, be visible and get out from behind their desk; if you don’t have the respect and support from your CEO, directors, the political parties and cabinet members, and proper engagement with users, even the best ideas will fail.”

[easy-tweet tweet=”The current environment requires public sector CIOs to lead, and they must be empowered to do so.”]

The current environment requires public sector CIOs to lead, and they must be empowered by directors, politicians and senior management to do so. The fact that just three per cent in the public sector recognise their CIOs as a driver of transformation is concerning, but provides an opportunity. In these times of change, with the right support, these business focused innovators can embrace their role and redefine the position as the leader of digital transformation not just a supporter.