The unavoidable truths about GovIT – by Cabinet Office official

The vast majority of GovIT is “outrageously expensive” says Chris Chant. “Things have changed and we haven’t.”

By Tony Collins

Chris Chant is one of the most experienced IT officials in central government. He was CIO at Defra where he led IT service improvement programmes with strategic outsourcing partners  including IBM. His reforms helped to change the way people worked.

He was also CIO at the Government Olympic Executive, part of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Now he is an Executive Director in the Cabinet Office working as Programme Director for the G-Cloud initiative.

In a cloud computing event hosted by the Institute for Government in London, Chant told it like it is. The points he make indicate that major change is less of a risk to public finances than keeping the machinery of government as it is.

He began his talk by thanking those in government IT who have been“working their socks off”. He had been talking positively to his teams in the last week and now “it is time to recognise some of the less positive aspects about what we do”.

He added: “We need to face some unavoidable truths head on about government IT as it has been done.”

These were his main points:

“The vast majority of government IT in my view is outrageously expensive, is ridiculously slow, or agile-less, is poor quality in the main and, most unforgivably I think, is rarely user-centric in any meaningful way at all.”

He said it is unacceptable:

–  That “80% of Government IT is controlled by five corporations”.

–  That “some organisations outsource their IT strategy in Government”.

–  That “to change one line of code in one application can cost up to £50,000”.

–  To wait 12 weeks to get a server commissioned for use.  He said: “That’s pretty commonplace. When you think in terms of using a service like Amazon the most problematic thing on the critical path is the time it takes you to get your
credit card out of your wallet and enter the details on screen”.

–  That the civil service does not know the true cost of a service and the real exit costs from those services – the costs commercially, technically and from a business de-integration standpoint. “So  how do we untangle our way out of a particular product or service. I cannot tell you how many times I have had the discussion that says: we need to get away from that but we cannot because of the complexity of getting out from where we are: all the things hanging on to that particular service that we cannot disentangle ourself from.”

– To enter into any contracts for more than 12  months. “I cannot see how we can sit in a world of IT and acknowledge the arrival of the iPad in the last two years and yet somehow imagine we can predict what we are going to need to be doing in two or three, or five or seven or ten years time.”

–  Not to know in government “how many staff we have on the client side of IT”. He said: “I have not yet met anybody who knows what that figure is. People know about small areas but overall we don’t know what that figure is.

– Not to know what IT people do. “So we don’t have any idea of the breakdown of that number that we don’t know either, surprisingly. I think that is outrageous in this climate, and in any climate.”

–  Not to know “what systems we own how much they cost; and how much or even if they’re used”. He said: “I know there are organisations that have turned off tens of thousands of desktop services merely to discover if they are used anymore; and when they do that they discover maybe one per cent are still being used. That’s completely unacceptable.”

– Not to know when users give up on an online service; “and it’s unacceptable not to know why they give up”. He said: “Of course it is unacceptable that they have to give up because the service does not fulfil their needs.”

– to have a successful online service that sends out reminders to use that service through the post.

–  Not to be able to communicate with customers securely and electronically when technology clearly allows that to happen.

– Not to be able to “do our work from any device we choose”. He said: “That is possible and has been for some time. It’s outrageous we cannot do that.”

– To pay up to £3,500 per person per year for a desktop service.

–  That “your corporate desktop to take 10 minutes to boot and the same amount of time to close down”. He said: “But that is the truth of what goes on everyday in Government IT and I suspect the public sector too.”

–  For staff to be unable to access Twitter or YouTube, when they use those services for what they do.

– For call centre staff not to be able to access the very service they are supporting at the call centre. “It sounds funny but  when you think of the consequences of that it is truly dreadful.”

–  To ensure people are working by restricting their access to the Internet. “If we cannot measure people by outputs where on  earth are we?”

Above all, said Chant, “it is unacceptable not to engage  directly with the most agile forward-thinking suppliers that are in the SME  market today and are not among the suppliers we have been using”.

Chris Chant’s talk

This is much of what Chris Chant said:

“A bunch of people have worked their socks off [but], through no  fault of their own, on the wrong thing for some time too… And it’s quite tough being in IT because, a bit like  electricity, it’s one of the rare things people seem to use almost all of the time…but we need to face some unavoidable truths head on about government IT as it has been done.

The vast majority of government IT in my view is outrageously expensive, is ridiculously slow, or agile-less, is poor quality in  the main and, most unforgivably I think, is rarely user centric in any  meaningful way at all…

I’ll give you my personal view of the unacceptable. I have spent a lot of time with teams in the last week talking positively about things and I think it is time to recognise some of the less positive aspects of what we do.

I think it is unacceptable at this point in time to not know the true cost of a service and the real exit costs from those services; the costs commercially, technically and from a business de-integration standpoint – so how do we untangle our way out of a particular product or service? I cannot tell you how many times I have had the discussion that says: we need to get away from that but we cannot because of the complexity of getting out from where we are: all the things hanging on to that particular service that we cannot disentangle ourself from.

I think it is completely unacceptable at this point in time to enter into any contracts for more than 12 months. I cannot see how we can sit in a world of IT and acknowledge the arrival of the iPad in the last two years and yet somehow imagine we can predict what we are going to need to be doing in two to three, or five or seven or 10 years time. It is a complete nonsense.

And to those who say ‘what about a supplier upfront infrastructure: surely you have to fund that somehow?’ I would say: ‘why do we have to treat IT and particularly commodity IT any differently from any other commodity
around?’

Marks and Spencer does not come knocking on the door asking me to guarantee to buy three suits and two shirts a year for the next five years and then they will put a store at the bottom of the road… if you look at a small local garage that has to fund its hydraulic ramps and the computer equipment they now need. They do not ask people to fund that upfront. They go into the market confident of their products and confident of their pricing so they will get people back again and arrange for how that gets funding…

I think it is unacceptable not to know in government how many staff we have on the client side of IT. I have not yet met anybody who knows what that figure is. People know about small areas but overall we don’t know what that figure is. It is also unacceptable that we don’t know what those people do. So we don’t have any idea of the breakdown of that number that we don’t know either,  surprisingly. I think that is outrageous in this climate, and in any climate.

It is completely unacceptable we don’t know what systems we own and how much they cost; and how much or even if they’re used. I know there are organisations that have turned off tens of thousands of desktop services merely to discover if they are used anymore; and when they do that they discover maybe one per cent are still being used…

It is unacceptable not to know when users give up on an online service; and it’s unacceptable not to know why they give up. Of course it is unacceptable that they have to give up because the service does not fulfil their needs.

It unacceptable to have a successful online service that sends out reminders to use that service through the post…. Linked to that, it’s completely unacceptable not to be able to communicate with customers securely electronically when technology clearly allows that to happen.

It is unacceptable not to be able to do our work from any device we choose. That is possible and has been for some time.  It’s outrageous we cannot do that.

It is unacceptable to pay – and these figures are Public Accounts Committee figures – up to £3,500 per person per year for a desktop service.

It is unacceptable for your corporate desktop to take 10 minutes to boot and the same amount of time to close down. But that is the truth of what goes on everyday in Government IT and I suspect the public sector too.

It is unacceptable for staff to be unable to access Twitter or YouTube, when they use those services for what they do.

It is unacceptable for call centre staff not to be able to access the very service they are supporting at the call centre. It sounds funny but when you think of the consequences of that it is truly dreadful.

I think it is unacceptable in this day and age to ensure people are working by restricting their access to the Internet. If we cannot measure people by outputs where on earth are we?

It is unacceptable that 80% of Government IT is controlled  by five corporations.

It is unacceptable that some organisations outsource their IT strategy in Government.

It is unacceptable that to change one line of code in one application can cost up to £50,000.

It is unacceptable to wait 12 weeks to get a server commissioned for use. That’s pretty commonplace. When you think in terms of using a service like Amazon the most problematic thing on the critical path is the time it takes you to get your credit card out of your wallet and enter the details on screen.

Above all – and at the heart of a lot of this – it is unacceptable not to engage directly with the most agile forward-thinking suppliers that are in the SME market today and are not among the suppliers we have been using.

So things have changed and we haven’t is what has happened.

A lot of these things could have been explained away five or 10 years ago but I
don’t think they could have been explained away adequately in the last three years, probably at least.

So how does G-cloud help in all of this? I think G-Cloud is about a fundamental change in the way Government and I believe the public sector too does technology. It is not just about cloud computing. It requires a complete change of approach. A cultural change of approach. A change in the way we look at security; a change in the way we look at service management and above all change in the way we procure services we use. So cloud will be cheaper…

Using cloud solutions that have already been secured and accredited
will be cheaper almost always.  We will only pay for what we use. People will only use DR when they use DR.

Over time through the G-Cloud programme, products will be pre-procured and security accredited. They won’t be accredited by the programme itself but by the first users of this, so we don’t have to replicate that work time and time again because that is what a lot of our staff are doing. A lot of the tens of thousands of staff that are working on the client side of government and public sector IT are procuring the same things, accrediting the same things from a security perspective; and it is a complete and utter waste of time and huge money.

You’ll know from the outset the cost of the product and most importantly we will know the cost of exit. Nuclear power looked really cheap all the time somebody chose to ignore de-commissioning of nuclear power stations, and then it became a very different model.

Contracts will be under a year I believe… I don’t believe aggregated demand and long-term contracts bring value for money. Quite the reverse…  why anybody would offer somebody a contract  which meant we could carry on paying them money almost regardless of the service we got, with no meaningful incentive for better performance? That can all change. When we have the ability, through understanding exit and understanding the cost and performance of things, to move out of one product and into another in short order, I guarantee that the price will come down …

… Costs [of streaming] used to be outrageous and the quality was poor until the BBC put together standards on the way it’s done and the BBC can now buy services on daily basis and the cost has dropped by an order of magnitude and the quality is much improved. They know –  the service providers – that tomorrow somebody can go somewhere else. If Marks and Spencer does not provide clothes at the right price and quality people will go down the road and buy somewhere else. It is that, that drives quality and price, not a long-term contract.

[When people see that] products have clear pricing, clear details of what they do, clear details of what exiting that product is going to be like, and it says: ‘Andy Nelson at the Ministry of Justice has used this product over the last year and this is what he says about of it’, that starts to transform what happens on price and quality far and away above anything that any SLA can or ever has given us. So we won’t get ourselves locked in in any way. Not from a commercial or technical perspective. Many products nowadays are designed to get their little feelers locked into every part of your system….

Our staff over time will become skilled system integrators. That’s what will happen in the short term…

We will see people setting up services in minutes instead of years. How?

We have Foundation Delivery Partners – they are departments, local authorities, organisations that come together with others that are looking
to buy cloud products. The FDPs work with a bunch of people from the government procurement service who handle the commercial aspects; they work with staff from CESG to work out security implications and product by product they have begun to break down what it is they need to do, so subsequently that work does not need to be redone.

Over time we will have a model that describes lots of different circumstances of use of products so we will know – the senior risk information officer – will know what has been covered off already and will see the accreditation that has gone on and will know they will only have to fine tune that for the last bit of use in their department. That will dramatically reduce over time the amount of effort that goes into that security.

Large-scale IL3 email is coming soon; and large-scale IL3 collaboration
opportunities…

[The Government Digital Service is off] corporate systems to a solution that is IL0 and IL1 and 2, with IL3 on a few machines to one side. [There are] savings of 82% over adopting the corporate systems. People don’t wait 10 minutes for machines to boot up and shut down.

We don’t have all the answers… Great quality IT centres around an iterative process that gets stuff out and we learn quickly from what users do with it and is improved and improved.  I don’t recall a press release saying Google will update its apps products on 8 May next year. What happens is you notice a little banner saying we have done it differently: do you want to try it? How many times have you seen improvements on eBay and just experienced them as they arrived?

They are intuitive and what people want and they just happen… [Published in last few minutes] is a new cloud framework that is designed specifically to get SMEs across the threshold and working directly with departments, agencies, local authorities, police and health. There is a user guide. It is a key product.

We will watch very carefully how this gets used, and the impact on SMEs. I don’t anticipate any large organisations having difficulty with this. But the target is to get us engaged with SMEs.

We will watch what their problems are and we will correct that as we go. We are already working on the second version of this which will be due out, hopefully, early in the new year. With brilliant support from John Collington in the Government Procurement Service we will be adding new suppliers on a month by month basis which will dramatically change things and really gives us the flexibility we need.

The second manifestation of how serious we are in the cloud is a document to be published tomorrow which will give a very serious indication of intent around the use of cloud…”

Chris Chant’s talk – audio file Government Digital Service

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13 responses to “The unavoidable truths about GovIT – by Cabinet Office official

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  7. Colin is right the GCloud is only a (small) part answer to the issues in Government IT. Indeed I think is a distraction (as are “agile” and open source) to the real issues which Chris Chant and Colin touched on. First become the intelligent buyer see what I distributed to various relevant departments including Chris Chant http://bit.ly/nQOAzE . So far only NAO have acknowledged – speaks volumes? It is easy to stand on the sidelines and say what is wrong it takes guts and leadership to fix…..time will tell who that leader is….?

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  8. Hi Tony,

    What are the five corporations that get 80% of the IT projects/work in the UK?

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  9. REFORMATION I
    “The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (Latin: Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum), commonly known as The Ninety-Five Theses, was written by Martin Luther in 1517 and is widely regarded as the primary catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. The disputation protests against clerical abuses, especially the sale of indulgences …

    “On the eve of All Saint’s Day, October 31, 1517, Luther posted the ninety-five theses, which he had composed in Latin, on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, according to university custom.”

    REFORMATION II
    OK, we don’t call it “reformation” any more, but “transformational government”. But that’s what Mr Chant’s talking about, isn’t it. And he didn’t nail his theses to the door, they were posted as an audio stream. But it comes to the same.

    What chance did Luther stand against the powers ranged against him? To any observer at the time, none. Ditto Mr Chant. But Luther won. Will Mr Chant?

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  10. And I think the cost of the processes will eclipse ALL of these put together. I once sat at a customer for a week (as an expensive contractor) waiting for their risk manager to give me the permission to install software on my desktop for an urgent fix they needed. Not only my time, but the cost in running the process, the meetings and the people involved, very expensive process! I’m sure if they do an analysis, there will be LOTS of those types of processes in all government departments.

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  11. I am stunned (but in a good way)

    Mr Chris Chant has voiced the very questions and incredulity I have been banging on about from the outside for some time now. At last someone on the inside who has seen the light.

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  13. Chris Chant is to be applauded for setting out some of the issues and for seeking improvements through better systems integration skills.

    However there is a whole herd of elephants sitting in the middle of the room, including: the political policy/ service fulfilment lag; fanatically policed organisational boundaries; privacy/ security/ legacy data issues etc. etc.

    I came to the conclusion some time ago that the most plausible approach is to create a NewGov.uk, founded on proper Systems (with a capital S) principles, in parallel to the legacy estate, rather than just hoping that GCloud technology will resolve the serious organisational inhibitors that have long created so much unexpected cost and disappointment in government IT.

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