Dave Watson: IT changes must not be all about cutting costs

Public sector IT professionals see huge potential in new technology. Picture: TSPL
Public sector IT professionals see huge potential in new technology. Picture: TSPL
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PUBLIC sector problems show another approach is needed, says Dave Watson

Police Scotland’s “I-6 project”, which aims to bring together the IT systems of eight police forces across Scotland, ran into difficulties, causing severe delays. At last count, costs were above £60 million. NHS 24 IT Future Programme ran into trouble before Christmas when the new system new system failed – patients were left on the phone for, in some cases, an hour. NHS 24 announced the IT programme was temporarily withdrawn because of safety issues. The project is, according to latest reports, £40m over budget. We can list many other similar stories from Universal Credit to the Crown Office.

Unison represents IT workers across our public services. Our recent consultation of IT members found a group who are seldom visible to the public but are vital to the delivery of public services – and who despair of the way IT is viewed across our public services.

Public sector IT professionals see huge potential in new technology, whether that’s making it easier to access information, or to diagnose an illness, or send reminders for appointments, or saving time for staff who can use a tablet computer rather than going back to the office to file forms so decisions can be quicker and more accurate.

If IT has so much to offer why do these big project failures happen? The IT workforce told us that instead of looking at how a new IT system can improve public services, it is primarily seen a cost-saving exercise. As one told us, senior managers tend to ask the wrong question: Instead of asking what can IT systems do for them, they should ask what can they do for the public. It should be about better public services, not just cutting costs.

The workers also told us that big IT contracts tend to go to big private companies rather than keeping them in-house. Private companies may know the technical side, but rarely have the necessary experience of public services – in particular how complex it can be providing universal access to an entire country.

Public services also have statutory responsibilities to ensure equal access, something private companies rarely have to worry about . Senior managers get carried away with overblown promises about state-of-the-art kit with promises it can do big things, and make big budget savings – which rarely materialise.

Competitive tendering can result in firms cutting corners to lower prices and thus win contracts. Staff engagement, public consultation and staff training too often are overlooked – and IT workers tell us technical solutions are often developed in a vacuum.

NHS 24 staff told us they raised concerns well before the system went live, but were not taken seriously. They felt as though they were treated as if they were anti-technology or anti-change. In fact, NHS 24 senior managers now recognise their mistakes and promise to spend more time developing the new system with those who have to operate it.

Unfortunately, IT departments are often outsourced themselves. They are not seen as frontline services. Our IT consultation is full of workers telling us that jobs have gone, leaving them to run ever more complex IT services with ever-fewer people to do it.

Trade unions are not anti-technology – we see the massive potential for improving services. IT systems and robots also take on repetitive boring tasks which can improve health and safety, and deliver services quickly and accurately. Workers are also freed up from paperwork to engage with the public.

Unison will do all we can to work with employers to develop a 21st century hi-tech, reliable and safe IT systems across the public sector. But we expect those implementing the systems to work with those who have to operate them and with the service users who benefit from them.

We need to obsess more about improving services and less about cutting costs; we need to value the in-house teams that not only understand the tech but also how the public interact with it.

• Dave Watson is head of policy and public affairs at Unison Scotland