You Are An IT Shop. You're Just Bad At It.

When a cluster of British banks fucked up and fucked up bad they were left with their customers unable to be paid. Or to pay their bills. Or withdraw cash, because the bank didn’t know how much money they had any more. Because money is digital. It has been since some time in the 60s, when banks started moving from ledger books to computers. Sure, we print it out and people sometimes use that instead, but money has been data for a while now.

Out of that monumental screw-up came a wonderful quote from David Chan, of the City University of London:

“A senior banking technologist has said to me: ‘A retail bank is nothing but an IT company with a banking licence’”

This is a really important point, but it’s one that’s not just relevant to banking.

You see, there is a tendancy in organisations to see IT as an expensive nuisance - an annoying cost centre populated by people who actually have to be paid something other than a pittance.

But here’s the thing: how you manage information is probably somewhere between merely important to your organisation, and literally the entire value of your organisation. And if you think otherwise, you’re in denial.

The reason I’m writing about this is the context of another failed, high-profile public sector project which has (justifiably) attracted some attention, in particular this anonymous but authoratative-sounding piece at The Standard, and Nigel McNee’s excellent free advice over at The Spinoff (and a tired Russell Brown piece where he and his friends line up to whine about “Wellington”, so what’s the fucking point, really).

The Standard piece is quite focused on the logistics of what went wrong; Nigel’s contains a lot of wisdom about how not to make the same mistakes, but I want to amplify and expand on his eighth point: develop internal capability. Because information is one of the things your users care most about and how well you manage it - which includes how well you can develop, deploy, and manage the IT systems you use - will be critical to how well you look after your users - whether they are private sector customers or public sector citizens.

Consider the kinds of things you might need from your council: resource consents, property reports, dog registrations; these things are about physical objects, sure. But the council responsibility is pure information management. The council has national laws it must obey (the RMA, for example). They have council laws they must obey, and finally they have council processes they want to implement.

Not one of those three things can happen if the IT doesn’t allow it. And if it’s badly implemented then, no matter how concientious or hard-working the council staff, you, the citizen, are going to have a shithouse experience, because bad IT systems constrain people to offering bad service.

Even when there are things the council does that aren’t primarily information products - mowing verges, operating the drains, or maintaining the roads, for example - they ability to manage information about them well can have a material effect on the ability to deliver them. I’m not talking about commodity IT services, like a CRM (customer relationship management tool), but more specialised information: it’s easy enough to patch a hole in the road when someone complains about it, but if you wanted to forecast how much road-fixing you ought to be doing, can you aggregate information about road quality, traffic volumes, the effects of weather on road surfaces and come up with something useful? What’s the sewer and stormwater system look like? Do you have it mapped out? Where should council staff dig? What times of day are the peak demand? When are you likely need to upgrade anything from pipes to one section of town to the resevoirs? These are all questions with varying degrees of specialised expertise both to design and implement. They also have a big effect on how efficiently and effectively you can run things, and they’re all affected by hyperlocal conditions - construction materials used over the past century, bylaws, national laws, water pH, soil conditions.

When you decide that “IT isn’t a core business” you’re saying that being able to do the things I’ve described above aren’t your job. Really?

Local IT teams, focused on solving these sorts of problems (as opposed to generic ones like “I’d like a laptop, please”) are the difference between being able to efficiently spend money on solving problems your citizens care about.

I’d like to be able to suggest that the private sector offers many insights into solving this problem, but I can’t, and the reason I say that is because many, many private sector organisations have exactly the same problem: a belief that the “real job” is a great marketing campaign, or a customer conversation, rather than the ability to actually deliver on promises; like 1970s British car companies, actually delivering a car that starts reliably is somehow seen as an optional extra.