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The evolving public sector IT department

The public sector IT department of the past looked very different. Teams focused on managing big suppliers, who managed big, monolithic IT systems with (what is intended to be) a limited shelf-life. The focus was often on keeping these systems running under increasing levels of pressure and change.

But, as in many other areas of working life today, digital is changing all of this. User-centred design is increasingly adopted as the approach that will deliver systems that meet user needs, and services are thought about end-to-end. This means public sector IT departments are undergoing a huge change. They are evolving from ‘run and maintain’ organisations into ‘design, build and iterate’ functions who partner strategically with operational businesses and form a fundamental part of business strategy.

This change isn’t easy. I believe that for IT departments to evolve successfully, they need to reconsider some of the fundamentals of effective organisation design and people management.

Reposition the CIO

Technology has been critical to business operations for some years. But technology isn’t just a critical enabler. It’s a strategic partner that can bring innovation to many areas of business operations – so it’s important that the CIO gets a seat at the top table. Policy and strategy meetings should include IT representatives who can proactively contribute to innovative ways to deliver ministerial priorities, and provide valuable insight about how complex or simple it is to make technology changes. 

At one central government department I saw how decision making improved when the CIO was made a part of the operational business’ top team. People shared information more readily, made more collaborative decisions and the silos so often created between ops and technology began to break down.

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Reshape the organisation

Organisations with different strategic intent and purpose need different structures. IT organisations with a significant focus on external relationships and ‘run and maintain’ activities are likely to have an efficiency-focused mindset. So teams will often be product-structured, with specific individuals with in-depth expertise in a named system and dataset. This creates narrow silos of knowledge, which risk single points of failure and minimise mobility.

Agile digital teams are service-oriented – meaning they’re aligned to delivering value for customers and citizens. Technology services are built in-house and continuously improved based on user feedback. To deliver effectively in this new world, you should consider re-structuring your IT function into cross-functional, service-based teams that are more closely aligned to the customer / citizen. Start by identifying end-to-end services and the capabilities required to support them.

Reconsider your definition of talent

As your IT organisation evolves, you’re likely to find that what was considered talent in the past no longer drives exceptional performance. Rock-stars of mainframe will be required as long as systems are in place – but as new services are built in new ways, you need a different type of talent. Key digital roles include a greater focus on user research, product management and interaction design, with an ability and eagerness to adapt to the next technology change.

Agile, digital teams seek ‘E-shaped people’ – those who have a number of areas of expertise and the curiosity to grow and acquire new skills broadly. Different definitions of talent and different roles and capabilities will be critical – as will effective recruitment of those with the right mindset and upskilling of existing staff. Assessing current levels of skills and capability is a good place to start, and will identify any significant gaps that need to be addressed.

IT departments in the public sector are changing quickly, and the future looks exciting. But success will be a challenge if CIOs don’t re-consider some of the fundamentals of effective organisation design and people management.

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