Public sector IT: Our own pig in lipstick?
Time to roast it. But slowly
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. ®
Couldn't agree more with parts of this.
Without naming names, the techies are just outgunned by the big suppliers.
On one project alone this year, I could conservatively save one subsection of one government department, 40 million a year, simply by bringing it in house.
The whole, "Government's job isn't to do the work" is rubbish. The same staff doing the same jobs, would do them better if there wasn't an agenda of "Forget delivering our commitments until you've got more commitments" bordering on what I consider the criminal, by senior consultants in outsourcers.
Progress meetings aren't even remotely related to meeting about progress, and in fact seem to me to be little more of catch ups where slick salesmen (who are technically illiterate but describe themselves as principal consultant or something equally facile,) turn up, flash beguiling terms and name drop, but don't let the government staff out the door until the question "how much have you got to spend?" has been answered.
At this point, they invent a new job role, or just anything to suck the money.
Need more staff on the job? Let's invent a new job called "Performance tester." Isn't poor performance self evident? Let's invent a new role, business analyst. (don't the staff know what their business is about? Why not ask them instead?)
Hey presto! 1200 quid a day please!
And it's not just government. On one job, I turned up and designed a Global reward system, (from scratch - having first had to learn the business,) in 12 days. the implementation of which, would have cost less than the Oracle licences. The big consultancy which had dozens of people on site, and were flying people who I could only think of as seat covering non-entities (charged out at over a grand a day,) down from places as far as Cumbria for meetings, had taken two years to fail to do it.
What they did make sure was done though, was that every move and inducement was signed off by an indigenous manager. The company thought nothing of it at the time of sign off because they thought the consultancy knew what they were doing, but they surely came aware of it, when they tried to sue the consultancy, and found the consultancy did know what they were doing.
That said, the government will never change the rules to allow genuine competition between the big consultancies et al, and the SMEs though, for two reasons.
1. Big companies hire care in the communty types, under the guise of diversity officer, cleaner, etc. Unemployed people vote the government out.
2. Big companies also hire ministers as non-exec directors, on six figure salaries.
I don't suppose the odd political donation hurts either, though can't say whether this ever happens. I really must look this up on Google.
The article writer, whilst almost perfectly correct, is wasting his breath. He may as well write an article about the injustice of agencies refusing to forward uncleared people for jobs requiring DV or SC. Both articles would be equally a waste of time.
couldn't agree more
I'm one of the 'small businesses' that does get .gov contracts. There is a growing belief in some areas of the government that it is OK to risk a small company coming in and doing the job.
The long standing issue is that the government has been scared of a small company winning a big contract (that they could handle) and end up having problems with them doing things like going bust. This has been proven to be an issue that big companies are now having trouble with.
From my point of view you wouldn't do a project below cost, so where's the chance that the company would go bust? Unless of course you've been running your company in a manner that has been asking for trouble in the past.
I'd never dream of taking out a loan to build my company further - I'd stay within capacity and make sure it charges fairly for the services provided and that there is a sustainable staff structure.
the horse has bolted, let's get a new pony
I have seen huge examples of public sector IT wastage, servers clicking over at 2% capacity and then just buying a new server because the department wants it as an example.
Once they start sorting this stupid wastage out then it should be clearer on how to start saving money.
Consolidation needs to happen, at the local government level all IT should be controlled at the county level, there is no need for both county and local council models to be operating around the country. This can only happen with a national local government IT strategy.
And pig like objects seem to be flying overhead.
Beer; because thinking about the waste leads me to drink
The IT is not the issue
I work in .gov systems for a middle sized supplier. And it is not the budgets spent ton eh IT that is the problem it is the bugets spent on Consultants because the Civil Servants have been forced in to a position that they will not make any decisions without "expert" advice.
Working on a £12m delivery contract at the moment, and the consultant bill in exceeding £30m!!!!!
a) There is a need to radically reduce the number of systems, most of these are supporting concepts that can be scrapped - for example the BBC licence fee and the database backing that up (fund from general taxation as most of us have a TV, and all are assumed to have), the road fund licence and the database there (just raise the fuel tax and therefore tax those who use most fuel and cause most polution), local taxation (fund from central government per head of population and use democracy to decide how it is spent).... There are more depending on how radical you feel but those small things woudl be a great start.
b) Buy British, its British tax payers money and if it is to be used to support profits and jobs they should at least be British profits and jobs. This applies not only to IT systems but all government expenditure. Sort out the current mess which is government procurement, it doesn't need to be complex or difficult, and certainly shoudln't be expensive or impossible to tender. (I've tried and believe me it really is impossible).