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DCA contract merger unbalanced by Libra

UK.gov's model contract slips

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The risky £1bn merger of IT contracts at the Department of Constitutional Affairs has been delayed while it tries to absorb what must be the most delayed IT project in the history of government.

The numerous contracts being absorbed by the DCA's DISC (development, innovation and support contracts) programme are being channelled into two guinea pig contracts that will determine the nature of every future IT deal government does with industry.

DISC is being used as a test base for contentious model contract terms that the Office of Government Commerce, the Treasury's procurement sheriff, has been trying to get the industry to swallow for over 18 months. But they weren't having any of it, and neither where a roll call of experts who lined up to say they might make life even more difficult for a government trying to avoid expensive IT cock-ups.

The two DISC contracts where meant to be awarded on 13 April, but have been put back until further notice. The "timescales" for DISC have been rejigged, a DCA spokesman said in an email to The Reg, "in order to maximise the strategic IT opportunities presented by DISC".

What on earth could he mean? Delay is par for the course for most IT projects, but the DCA is right in the middle of contractual negotiations over DISC. Delay usually comes later, when it transpires that setting the contract to a political agenda and timetable has created unrealistic terms of reference for the supplier (an oft repeated error, despite reams of advice - take the NHS National Programme for IT and watch for Identity Cards).

But the delay is over something more enigmatic, as the DCA spokesman described it: "Primarily, this relates to strengthening the way the Libra application services are brought into DISC."

Libra, a unified computer system for magistrates, has been beset by problems ever since it was first drafted 16 years ago. It was one of the Private Finance Initiative projects that got PFI banned from IT projects. Even now, it has only reached pilot stage in two magistrate's courts - the most recent coming line just ten days ago.

One of the most important lessons learned from Libra was the stupidity of trying to lump disproportionate amounts of project risk onto suppliers, which was an ambition of PFI contracts.

As it happens, the controversial terms that the DCA borrowed from the OGC, and over which it is still locked in negotiations with suppliers, are all to do with the allocation of risk. That is, the OGC has been trying to get IT suppliers to carry more contractual risk than many think wise.

The OGC's new model contracts were in part designed to fill the hole left by the loss of PFI in government IT, and experts say they have a lot in common with the tough PFI terms, as well as those desperate suppliers embraced in order to get some of the £6bn being spent on NPfIT.

Now they have become standard fare in the industry, despite the OGC's admission last summer, after intense industry lobbying, that there should be a "hiatus" on its model terms while it figured out whether they were a good idea after all.

Did no one hear about the hiatus? The OGC can't have - it is still advising that its contentious model terms should be used.®

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