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It's time to make real change happen

 

Liam Byrne the outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury allegedly left his successor David Laws a brief note on his desk - 'There's no money left'.  this probably isn't the best news to discover on your first day at the office and the behaviour is none too pleasant.  There are strong rumours that the outgoing Government emptied the coffers approving all sorts of things including several large scale IT projects in some kind of scorched earth approach to losing power.  The new Personal Accounts Delivery Authority system at £600m being a possible example.  All good news for the winners of these deals...or is it?

The public sector budgets are stretched to breaking point and savings will have to be made if Government commitments are to be met.  How these savings will be found depends on a number of factors, some are obvious enough already judging by the thinking outlined in the http://www.makeitbetter.org.uk/ approach document.  Cuts in IT funding will, however, have implications and we may have to accept a level of stagnation that has not been seen in a generation.  Part of the problem rests with the current  procurement processes which leaves much to be desired.  They are unnecessarily complicated, and confusing despite having plenty of high quality underlying material and good intentions.  In the name of fairness the processes manage to be precisely the opposite.  They impose far too high a cost of sales for most smaller organisations to even contemplate engaging with government.  Despite numerous political statements in support of SMEs and commitments to using innovative products little progress has obviously been made to bring these companies forward.  According to recent research the vast majority of Government IT delivery is managed by less than ten large companies. 

The UK Office of Government Commerce has buried good thinking and sound material in brochureware and poor quality process representation, their hexagon map is awful providing no sense of purpose or direction and forcing unnecessary and extended research to begin to understand how it works and what is required.  This is no better for those trying to use it from the department side either.  If the new Government are going to achieve anything then they may just need to start by pulling apart the processes that lead to long term contracts from the same old suppliers and start to identify how to drive value and benefit in new ways.  They also need to look at how long term contract value is understood by the suppliers, low cost on year one may be more than compensated for by the selected methods for handling growth and change.  Force the buyer to pay a high price for changing anything, this is ultimately counter-productive for everyone and has the capacity to create political constraints.  The IT in place, and the cost of changing it should never be the determinant factor in how policy is shaped.  This may seem obvious, but it certainly isn't a well managed issue as several leading suppliers know to their gain.

The outsourcing approaches of the last twenty years have long been seen as cumbersome and inflexible and changes are evident in the approaches being taken currently, the DWP applications environment being an example.  However, breaking one huge contract into five large contracts doesn't lead to enough of a change to make a real difference and probably won't generate any surprises in who runs the deals.  Most of the large suppliers can also talk a good story on collaboration or teamwork but there is little real evidence of this in action, more likely anyone digging below the surface on large deals will find clear lines of demarcation and some clear operating boundaries.  The need for large deals may not go away, organisations like DWP, HMRC and the NHS are not easily deconstructed if real savings are to be made.  There are ways to bring more innovative organisations and methods forward but unless there is a clear incentive to the leviathans this won't happen.  There seems to be a general lack of understanding about what motivates the big players and an even greater lack of knowlegde when it comes to understanding how they make profit on the deals they enter into.

So how can Government IT innovate when there are conflicting motives in play?  The incoming Government's stated approach is to look for innovation but also to use existing suppliers.  The two seem mutually exclusive.  There is a significant amount of waste in IT procurement, too much of it is repeated for no good reason to check whether anything has changed since last time, market making and false competition.  If the reality is that large contracts are unavoidable and smaller suppliers don't have a hope of winning then cut to the chase and make this clear.  At the very least save a lot of companies a lot of time and effort in bidding for work they will never win, or give them a real chance, set some criteria that make it possible for them to compete and make some different decisions for once.  

If the Government want to make a difference quickly they need to look at what they plan to outsource and make sure they understand it.  There is a problem here too though.  Many business process tools are geared towards delivering an automated IT system and those in the hands of the IT department are not the easiest for the business community to engage with.  What is needed prior to outsourcing is something that aids understanding, clarifies the business operations so that everyone is working at the same level of awareness and not just the CIO's team who speak the process language of complex tools.  Everyone involved should be able to identify the system boundaries so that they can clarify absolutely what is being outsourced and what it means for their organisation.  Failure to understand such issues has dogged outsourcing contracts across the public sector and almost inevitably leads to high levels of frustration and mistrust.  It can be avoided by taking the right approaches, but put ownership of the task in the hands of the operational leaders and not the providers of IT systems who exist to support them and give them the right tools for the job. 

Wordle: UK Public Sector IT 

A Wordle based on public sector news items in early May (www.wordle.net)

 

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