IT departments within the public sector are under more pressure than ever to deliver. Government CIOs are increasingly being expected to improve the quality of services they provide, conform with whole-of-government initiatives and embrace new trends – all while spending less an uncertain economic and political environment.
And many of these CIOs are trying to meet all these demands. This may be feasible in the short-term but over time it inevitably leads to a decline in performance and widespread dissatisfaction with the IT function.
One way IT can address this issue is by becoming fit for purpose – focusing on capabilities that are strategically important to the agency.
There are two steps in this process: understand the strategic intent of the agency and determine the right role and agenda for IT.
The first step is to gain clarity on the agency’s core mission and the strategic capabilities most essential for it to deliver on that mission. Some agencies are focused on external customers while others on improving internal efficiencies.
Although each agency will have its own mix of capabilities, they are all likely to have one thing in common: IT will play a significant role in either contributing to or co-creating those capabilities.
But regardless of the nature of the mission, a clear definition of the essential capabilities of the agency, and the technology support required to deliver those skills is the starting point to becoming fit for purpose.
The second step focuses on defining the strategic role that IT will play to deliver the capabilities.
When doing this, it is helpful to think of its role as an archetype: a well-established identity that guides the agenda for IT, influences the way it operates within the agency, and defines and clearly communicates the contribution it makes to the core mission.
There are five archetypal agendas to consider: operator, value player, technology leader, service broker and capability leader.
Each is named in a way that reflects how it resolves the tensions that often exists among common ICT value drivers, e.g. attention to cost effectiveness is seen as a curb on quality or eager responsiveness may seem to undermine the independent thinking for innovation. No single IT group can possibly excel at all six of these value drivers therefore a more strategic role needs to be adopted.
Below are short explanations of each agenda.
Operator: This IT department provides high quality services with low risk by emphasising execution and operational excellence. It is valued in agencies that depend on technology to avoid mishaps and damages, or to maintain high volumes or extra reliability. If an IT division pursues this agenda, it may need to resist the temptation to overinvest in world-class technological excellence.
Value player: This IT division focuses on cost and efficiency. It has mastered standardisation and basic functionality, rolling out each service as broadly as possible to maximise the return on investment while greatly limiting the number of products, variations and services.
Technology leader: Drawing on advanced technological prowess, this IT division provides leading-edge support for innovative products and services. This type of agenda might help the agency cross the “capabilities gap” most effectively to become a whole-of-government leader.
Service broker: To provide scale and consistency, this IT division integrates services from external vendors into an end-to-end solution that can be delivered to citizens, as well as to partner agencies and global parties.
Capability builder: This IT division is closely involved in the design of new practices and processes. The agenda goes beyond a purely functional shared-service role to a strategic partner role, helping to deliver the agency’s core mission.
The choice of the role and agenda will depend on the core mission, essential capabilities of the agency and how ICT will respond to the priorities of the agency. While most ICT divisions will centre on one primary archetype, there may be slight variations that reflect the unique situation of the agency.
The Department of Human Services’ (DHS) mission is to work with the community, service providers and partners to deliver innovative and easy to access services.
Based on this mission, DHS might choose a hybrid of ‘capability builder’ and ‘operator’ IT function role. The department might invest in customer relationship management, social media and smartphone integration capabilities as well as a service catalogue aligned to individual business units.
At the same time, the agency may also focus on service delivery excellence and reliability by reducing duplication of systems, modernising critical platforms, and optimising infrastructure.
A similar agenda may also exist within agencies such as Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC). DIAC’s strategic intent is to “play a key role in building Australia’s future through well-managed movement and settlement of people.”
It is both a policy development and service delivery agency, and its IT function will benefit from having capabilities that support quality, responsiveness and innovation.
A smaller agency however may have a different IT agenda. For example, Airservices Australia’s purpose is “to provide a safe, secure, efficient and environmentally responsible service to the aviation industry.”
While Airservices may want to invest in specialised technologies that allow it to perform its core business of airspace management, it may benefit from adopting a ‘value player’ or ‘service broker’ ICT function.
This function would minimise back-office activities, impose strict controls over demand and portfolio management, have a simple, standardised service catalogue, and a robust, scalable network and infrastructure.
As a result, Airservices would avoid overinvesting in best-of-breed products, bespoke platforms, big data analytics or integrated social media and mobile platforms.
By focusing on an IT agenda, ICT leaders can exercise choice. Instead of striving to be best in class in all capabilities, and failing in some of these ambitions, they can become fit for purpose: providing the capabilities that the agency needs most.
No ICT organisation can reasonably satisfy all the business requirements but they can implement the right archetypal role to provide the services that are needed most. This provides an enduring framework for discussing and tuning the ICT strategy and avoids a focus on services that do not contribute to the agency’s strategic imperatives.
Pankaj Chitkara is a Management Consultant at Booz & Company based in Canberra. He works with organisations on business and IT strategy, digitisation and enterprise architecture.