Why public sector experience difficulties in developing an information systems strategy?

A public sector organisation is one whose ownership, funding and operation are by the government or one of its agencies (Broadbent and Guthrie, 2008; OECD, 2006) For example Irish Defence Forces, Education in the Republic of Ireland (Primary and Secondary Education), Garda Síochána, etc.

According to Boardbent & Guthrie (2008), there are four key domains of the public sector:

  1. Central Government
  2. Local government
  3. Public institutional systems, which although funded through taxation may be separate from local and central government (e.g. the Health Service Executive (HSE)).
  4. Public business enterprises (e.g. Bord Gáis, Bus Éireann)

Guy (2000) describes the main points that differentiate public sector organisations from private sector organisations as:

  1. Public agencies usually have a larger number of competing goals; public organisations face a variety of stakeholders, for example, taxpayers, citizens, other public service organisations and private sector organisations etc. each with what may be differing, or even, conflicting goals.
  2. Public agencies operate under public scrutiny; in terms of public accounts or ‘oversight’, and scrutiny by the general public and mass media.
  3. Public managers operate under fragmented authority structures; for example a senior manager in a city planning department is bound to stand by the city development plan, however, he is also the subject of elected members of government who may issue instructions from time to time that may be at odds the development plan or how it should be implemented.
  4. Public organisations have more legal restrictions on their actions;
  5. Public organisations have more restrictions on their staffing; for example, they cannot hire, fire, or promote staff as flexible.

The clearest differences relating to the public sector, which research demonstrates, is the greater bureaucracy, a greater emphasis on promoting public welfare and lower organisational commitment of employees (due to the inflexibility of, for example, links between performance and rewards) Boyne (2002).

According to Boyne (2002), the issues and challenges that public sector faces are:

  1. Service not ‘profit’ agenda; as individuals, we require efficient and effective provision from our public services – but at the same time we would like to have our tax minimised. For public sector organisations, ‘value’ (or ‘best value’) rather the ‘profit’ is the guiding concept.
  2. Strategic relevance/impact;
  3. Organisational culture/bureaucracy (red tape)/lower productivity; For public sector organisations the need to uphold transparency and accountability may lead to bureaucracy and ‘red tape’ and a culture which is ‘less flexible and more risk-averse’ than the private sector.
  4. Assimilating emerging technologies;

        Technology transfer

        Integrating Changing Technology Platforms

Does the government have the right people at the right levels to appreciate technology and where it’s going?

  1. Sourcing policies;
  2. Application development process;
  3. Partnership of IT team, users, and general management;

The analysis above suggests that public organisations are different from those in the private sector, which may have implications for how they should be managed, including the management of their IS/IT capabilities.

The terms electronic government, e-government or digital government have all been coined in our more recent times to highlight that the arrival of powerful information and communications technologies has extended what is possible regarding the use of IS/IT in the public sector. Chen et al. (2008) define digital government as “the application of information technology to government processes in order to improve services to constituents”.

The issues and challenges faced by public sector organisations in e-government are:

  1. Strategic Information System Planning (Earl, 1989) relates to planning how best to meet the demand for information which supports the organisation’s strategy, using appropriate information and communications technologies
  • Business Strategy
  • IS (current and future information needs)
  • IT (current and future IC technologies required to deliver the information)
  • IM (management resources and processes required)
  1. Interoperability; Gottschalk (2009) defines interoperability as “the ability of government organizations to share information and integrate information and business processes by use of common standards and work practices”
  2. Trust and security; Roy (2006) “Trust lies at the heart of e-government”. For citizens to use e-government applications they must feel confident that their personal data is securely held, and will be dealt with in an appropriate and responsible manner.
  3. The use of consultants; “market-based, private sector solutions to the real or perceived problems of the public sector, combined with a lack of IT capacity and capability, which government policies such as outsourcing and privatisation have aggravated… the promise and practice of e-government has created significant opportunities for the consultancy industry to gain power and influence within the e-government policy domain and beyond” (Horrocks, 2009)

Looking at these issues and challenges, an example of a public sector organisation in this regard is the case study of the National Health Service Ayrshire and Arran (NHSAA) based in the UK. The organisation’s objective is to think strategically about its use of IT/IS to deliver on its aim to improve the health and wellbeing of its population.  The use case shows that NHSAA faces many of the issues and challenges above, such as:

  1. The changing emphasis of IS/IT strategy from a focus of rationalisation and infrastructure to one of developing new and innovative solutions;
  2. The need to consider the development and enhancement of systems – not all IS within the organisation are electronic/computer based;
  3. The opportunities to benefit from integrating systems both within the organisation and across the organisation (e.g. with GPs); and related issues relating to interoperability and standards;
  4. The need to deliver on strategic priorities and targets which are set internally or externally;
  5. The importance of IT governance, backup and security issues;
  6. The need for effective procurement policies;
  7. Involving users and patients in the development/oversight of the systems;
  8. The importance of knowledge sharing (both internally and with external stakeholders/partners), and the role of the knowledge management portal.

Though public sector organisations may experience difficulties in developing an information systems strategy; there are a number of benefits of using IS/IT to facilitate and enhance internal processes and external relationships. There is the opportunity to configure, through the innovative use of IS/IT, the way in which the organisation does business, leading to a view that IS/IT should be managed strategically.

Please leave a comment or contact me for more information.

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