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Public sector IT: Our own pig in lipstick?

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Tight budgets and less intrusive government mean that the stage is set for increasingly heated debate between those who want to overhaul public sector IT systems wholescale, and those who believe that now is not the time for radical change.

At a recent online seminar (pdf), hosted by Adobe, about the future of frontline public service delivery under the UK’s new coalition Government, the case for incremental change was put by Martin Ferguson, Head of Policy at SOCITM, the society for ICT and related managers in the public and third sector.

Ferguson argued that the public sector had now to focus on bringing together and exploiting existing services and infrastructure. He said: "There is no appetite or budget for ripping out and replacing legacy systems.

"Last month, Government Computing covered a project at Southwark Council that had delivered on this premise by adding a customer interaction and business process automation layer on top of existing back end systems to deliver a new customer service system.

"The underlying infrastructure and services remained the same to contain costs and retain simplicity."

However, this approach is a red rag to the rather more bullish Adrian Hepworth, who describes himself as Chief Evangelist at Erudine – a company with its own vested interest in replacing legacy systems with more up-to-date responsive systems.

Accusing SOCITM of wanting to put "yet more lipstick on the pig", Mr Hepworth said: "Britain faces an unprecedented age of financial restraint and with that come huge demands on Government to reduce costs and deliver services for much less. Debate is already turning to not just the level of cuts, but which services government should cease to offer altogether.

"Radical reform necessarily requires significant change to existing business process and systems, not just minor incremental change and tinkering around the edges.

"While web delivery and self-service can clearly deliver a modest reduction in cost, it will be nowhere near the levels needed to meet government budget cuts and risks creating a more complex environment where operational costs actually increase.

"Once again, incremental savings and stick to what we know are trumpeted over true innovation. The radical reforms referred to by government departments will fundamentally change the business process locked away in those legacy systems, so now is the time to look for an alternative method of delivery that faces up to the challenge of 30-year-old systems and takes the brave step to understand why they remain so resistant to change and not repeat the mistakes of the past."

So is this just self-interest? It would be naïve to think that such considerations played no part at all in Erudine’s outburst – but that does not exonerate the public sector from all criticism.

The fundamental point made by Erudine – and more quietly by other UK SME’s – is that they are battling a culture in which government IT function seems to have gone native, becoming little more than mouthpieces for the big suppliers. Maintaining existing systems – a change request culture – is very profitable for companies such as EDS: it also means that a large proportion of public sector IT budgets is taken up with constant refinement, rather than radical innovation.

Add to this the cost of tendering for any new business: one SME we spoke to estimated it could cost them half a million pounds to put themselves forward for the G-cloud shortlist. Hardly surprising that UK central government then declares it needs to go to the US to look for innovation.

We also contacted SOCITM for comment. At time of writing, they had not returned our call.

No doubt this debate will continue: how it turns out may well determine the shape of UK public sector IT well into the 21st century. ®

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