National government: what’s in it for IT?

Productive application of IT in businesses and government agencies is for the most part "woefully inadequate", says MP Maurice Williamson, newly reappointed as opposition spokesman on IT under the Brash regime.

Productive application of IT in businesses and government agencies is for the most part “woefully inadequate”, says MP Maurice Williamson, newly reappointed as opposition spokesman on IT under the Brash regime.

Business and the IT industry can take credit for many individual examples of IT-facilitated efficiency enhancement. Williamson mentions Mainfreight’s Mainchain database integration and Landonline, though this had its difficulties. But these are the exception rather than the rule, he says.

“In the public and private sector, most managers still don’t realise that IT, properly used, can result in bigger efficiency gains than any other factor.”

As a small but probably common example, he cites the secretary at a company he visited using Microsoft Word “as a slightly-enhanced typewriter”. He dived in and showed her how to program a few macros, attach XML smart tags to documents and import and export mailing-list information from letters. She and her colleagues and boss were astounded, he says, to see the unused potential of something they’d already bought.

Microsoft and other vendors must take a share of the blame for this, he says.

“I wish they’d help educate competent and qualified businesspeople who can use their products properly as well as producing Microsoft certified engineers.”

Cultivating and inculcating knowledge of IT’s potential is a problem that any government must face, Williamson says. The heart of the problem is that IT is such a cross-sector facilitator that it is hard for government to get a fix on it; there isn’t a single authority, or small group of authorities, responsible for policies that will use it to good effect, as there is with the roading system.

“I’m a great believer, for example, that if you put innovative solutions in place, you could dramatically improve the health system.”

In the 1990s, as Minister of IT, he was “aghast” at the primitive and unconnected nature of IT in the health sector. It’s got better since then, but is still far from achieving its full potential, he says.

“There are still people in hospitals doing scheduling on whiteboards.”

Unfortunately, the reorganisation of government’s research sector, with the abolition of the DSIR and the formation of subject-specific crown research institutes, happened “before IT was big enough to be a discipline on its own”. If it had happened a few years later, he says, there would no doubt have been a CRI dedicated to information technology, and this would have acted as a considerable facilitator of local knowledge and good practice.

Government can really do little to spark effective use of IT by way of policy, but it can and should act as an example through its own use of technology “and I like to broaden it to ‘technology’ rather than just IT”, says Williamson -— and to be a catalyst to promote examples like Mainchain around the country.

This was what the Labour-government-created E-commerce Action Team did, he agrees, “and I thought Ecat was a very good idea. But after Ecat [wound up] the momentum was lost.”

A lot of the present government’s initiatives, such as the IT Task Force and the HiGrowth project that came out of it, are tending in the right direction, Williamson says, and he is hesitant at this stage to commit a future National government to any wildly different IT policies.

“I do have a few ideas; some of them would possibly be considered quite nutty,” he says; but they are his personal ideas and not yet party policy.

He says government should be very wary of major “big-bang” projects and should attempt to split them into small parts, with distinct milestones, to avoid Incis-like disasters.

When a project stretches out as long as ten years, he says, apart from having a high risk of failure, there will be practically zero accountability, because government agency chief executives typically last only three to four years in the job. The CEO who initially championed the project will almost certainly not be there to carry the can if it falls over.

“We don’t have any policies on this yet, but I would like to think more robust and more accountable processes could be put in place.”

Rather more controversially, he suggests more public-private partnerships could be a way to successful and cost-effective public-sector IT. A government agency and a private company could share the costs and risks of the project and both walk away with a proportionate share of intellectual property that could be further commercialised.

In moderation this would not, he argues, be an unwise use of taxpayers’ money.

Unlike his Green Party counterpart, Nandor Tanczos, Williamson is distinctly cool on recommending open source systems as a preferential direction for government.

The debate tends to concentrate unduly on up-front cost, he says.

“It should be about long-term cost of ownership, taking into account maintenance, upgrade, training — and compatibility. It’s no good having an economical open source system if it won’t talk to your neighbours.”

However, open source and proprietary paths should be considered on an equal footing by government agencies and businesses contemplating a new development, he says. The ever-present alternative of open source is also important for “keeping the blowtorch on Microsoft”, he says.

And if Williamson’s personal thinking on the spam problem comes through in National policy, we will have more hope of getting anti-spam law out of a Labour government. He is proud of being a dab-hand at programming spam filters and continually tuning and tweaking them to eliminate all spam from his inbox.

He sees no reason why everyone should not learn to do the same, or be assisted by vendors to do so. Spam is just a problem of today, he suggests. When the spammers have been unfailingly bouncing off filters for a few years, the problem will go away without legislation.

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