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Government scrambles Intellect code

Badge of honour unravels

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Trade body Intellect is failing in its efforts to regulate public sector IT suppliers because it lacks the vital support of government customers.

Instead of trusting suppliers to do a good job, government has taken matters in its own hands and used a more severe approach to making them behave responsibly. The result is that Intellect's code of best practice - a set of principles by which government suppliers swear to do their best to produce IT systems that work - is looking ever more like a damp squib.

Prolonged government neglect of the code is becoming an embarrassment. On its first anniversary this time last year, Intellect complained that government indifference was stunting the scheme's growth and civil servants insisted they would show it more kindness in 2005.

But little has changed. Intellect's statements on the matter this week were indistinguishable from those it made a year ago. We've done our bit, said the trade association's government director Nick Kalisperas, it's up to the public sector to pull its weight now.

Intellect has ailed to attract more than a couple of suppliers from its membership of around a thousand to join the 50 who were already signed up to the code this time last year - though, it should be noted, these do include the major government suppliers.

Government is taking little interest in this ornamental code of honour, partly because it doesn't have to, partly because there are more important matters to be dealt with. It is a good indication of where the power currently lies in the relationship between industry and government.

The reason the government doesn't have to play ball is that the IT industry is dependent on government business as its major source of income. So the British government's contracting sheriff, the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), has got suppliers by the goolies. All suppliers can do is smile sweetly, show their medals and hope it doesn't squeeze too hard.

The OGC has accordingly been dictating terms of business, most significantly through tough contractual terms.

Though of questionable use in helping to avoid IT disasters, these terms might be a far more effective means of ensuring suppliers play to the government's tune than a voluntary code. And it may also be a favoured method of protecting public sector IT managers (who are less clued-up than their private sector counterparts and therefore easy prey) from unscrupulous sales people while the eGovernment unit puts them through its newly formed IT management school.

The OGC has got enough on its plate besides. As well as its ongoing controversial review of contracts, there is a bothersome set of European procurement laws being implemented, and a new government IT strategy. On top of all that, it has to help deliver the Gershon efficiency savings - arguably the most radical change programme the government has seen.

The code is of little practical value to Intellect without public sector buy-in. Customers are not even demanding that suppliers have the code when they put business to tender. Neither are they noting whether suppliers abide by the code and complaining about them when they do.

Perhaps if Intellect had real teeth it might attract some interest. As it stands, suppliers who offend the code face having their association membership revoked. (Ouch - ed)

The OGC says it has people on the job promoting the code among government customers, though you never can tell. The latest word from the agency is that it is being considered part of the Government IT strategy, which is a euphemism for, 'not now, dear, I'm busy'.®

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