Of mice and IT elephants – guest blog

By John Pearce

I heard your interview on BBC’s World at One today Tony. You were saying there may be potential for fleet-of-foot small IT firms to access government contracts. It was music to my ears.

You referred to the NHS and Universal Credit IT disasters and the way contracting has been dominated by a few big beasts and multi-nationals.  You killed the myth that “big is beautiful”  and praised “new rules”  to break up projects into smaller units.

Small can be perfectly formed and powerful. Businesses like ours are quick-reflex mice stuck behind the elephants blocking the doors. Why don’t they just sit out of the way, in the room, like other elephants?

We are an SME in IT.  We have great pedigree, an innovative product, a presence in education and are ready to break into the business world and government work more generally. But without the bulk and buying power to advertise, lobby and bid for the current huge projects we have not been able to do much, if anything. We are encountering elephant in the door syndrome.

So we continue doing what we do, scurrying like mad, working unreasonable but happily given hours. It is not in the country’s interest for us to be tired, blocked and trapped. We fear being swallowed up, of losing our identity. I suppose it might be quicker than being slowly squashed under an elephant’s backside.


Dan O’Brien, my business partner, is young, creative, dynamic and rushed off his feet.  I am three of those and old.  He has run a small successful software company for 15 years. I had a successful senior career in education and in business as consultant, evaluator, writer and publisher.  I created a deceptively simple, improvement model for individual, team and organisation. So, Dan and I created an on-line version.

We launched “The iAbacus” in 2012 and were finalists in the BETT2014Awards [hosted by Jo Brand] on 22 January 2014.  There were lots of mice competing with us and the usual elephants. But before we announce the winner let’s have a look at the iAbacus focusing on school governance. 

We dream of developing this and moving into business generally. We see a huge potential for this “empowering personnel” approach applied to NHS and civil service personnel. Up to now the elephants have blocked the way, or grinned through the windows while they ate ice buns. Can elephants grin?

We didn’t win the Bett2014 Big Cheese but it was a great show – it makes people like us feel good.  Yes, coming back to the office was disappointing but we are nibbling away, on-line, working in education but, even in this field I know so well, customers can be sniffy too – “small is ugly and simple is simplistic; let’s go for the big suppliers”. 

New rules

Will the Cabinet Office’s new rules work?

 Not unless there is support for small outfits like ours who, intent on the day to day business, will struggle writing the bids and attending the selections. We’ll keep running and swerving around elephant bottoms but we need muscle power and finance for the advertising and lobbying. We need to elbow past the elephants, get an audience with buyers.  Is there anyone out there?  Echo…echo….echo…

Or, are there friendly elephants out there who could help us, encourage and include us?  Could the regulations persuade them?  How about a clause like the one when planning new houses?  Every housing project has to include a percentage of affordable homes. How about every IT contract having to include a percentage of SMEs?  

I want to one of them. I want to be a Trojan Mouse!

John Pearce is a freelance consultant, working across education, business and community. After a successful career in teaching and headship, he became Deputy Chief Inspector for Nottinghamshire County Council. He was a BETT2014 finalist for The iAbacus which he created with Dan O’Brien.

john@iabacus.co.uk   dan@iabacus.co.uk

BBC’s World at One focus on government IT.

4 responses to “Of mice and IT elephants – guest blog

  1. Dear John and David C

    I found myself shouting (in my mind at least) YES, YES RIGHT ON THE MONEY, COULD NOT AGREE MORE…. with most of what was stated. However it will matter not a jot what the Cabinet’s New Rules are re project scale and cost and it matters not a jot how fast the mice are. There will always be a particular elephant lurking in the room which will stomp on you from a great height. This particular elephant is the financial gateway question which appears on PQQ’s. It is on the face of it an innocuous question which in general only accounts for 5% of the overall score allowing you to proceed to the next stage of the procurement. However if you do not score the max on this question you are out irrespective of how you did on the remaining 95%. What is this question? It is: do you turnover £2,000,000 or above? OK it only applies to projects which which are published via the European Journal but then most government projects are.

    It does not matter how nibble, agile, creative or innovative you are as a solution provider. If you don’t turn over £2m you’re not good enough. This is effectively why we ended selling our IPR after 15 years of successful service to our chosen market sector. We started life as a sub-contractor but did not enjoy the experience nor the fleecing of our clients by the Primes. There were a few brave organisations that found a way around the procurement rules which kept us in business until we sold but they were few and far between.

    Without the procurement rules changing nothing will change and the elephants which John speaks of will keep grinning and getting fatter. David’s technology and approach however slick and innovative will remain, I fear, a bright blip on the way to mediocrity and more failures.


    • Thanks for another positive response (at least in the initial lines) and also thanks for the dose of realism. After 40 odd years working away (equally enthusiastically) in the education sector I am, only now, feeling the exciting freedom of the small businessman. I love it and can, only now, hear those whispers, “You should be in business…” So, I’ll keep bashing away using what divergent and analytical skills I have and let’s see what happens. I juts “know” we have a great idea. I know it works and, one day, it will get through… I just have to believe that… Are we really saying there is no hope for a Trojan Mouse? Come on Elephants – I’ve always admired your slow moving, ponderous, steps… you can’t ALL be fools….


  2. Thanks for this detailed and thoughtful response! It takes the issues a big step further and gets to the “What do we do?” I signed off with. I especially like and applaud this section “A learning society needs to ask good questions. Government must have in place research resources that track emerging trends and new technologies”. It will be interesting to see if and how the ideas coming through here are operationalised….


  3. John
    Welcome the world of the government as the “unintelligent buyer! Sounds like you like us have a technology that could be used in the context of a larger project. Sadly Government have yet to truly understand what the intelligent buyer actually means! I have a few FOIs out to Cabinet which hopefully will fill in a few “gaps” and just maybe hold to account serious omissions in seeking VFM
    Meanwhile is my take on why being the “intelligent buyer” is important as is recognising the value Tech SMEs such as we have both created can bring.

    The way IT has evolved in the supply of the underlying software has created a “dark art” as far as business is concerned surrounding how solutions are built. Add to that the vendor domination through natural maturing of markets has resulted in a dichotomy of mature market with immature product sets. The supply of operational applications still relies on programmers to code either “Custom Off The Shelf” (COTS) or commissioning of a custom build. In both cases it is a compromise that rarely meets either the initial need or flexibility for future change. This is the issue we have spent 20 years addressing and despite great success with early adopters we face the same challenges as articulated

    The UK Government’s very poor track record in IT speaks for itself. At the core is this big omission in understanding not just how software works but how people work and the support needed to do their daily job. The Public Administration Select Committee on their report in ICT made the strong recommendation that Government must become the intelligent customer. As the Government moves to looking to implement digital services so this becomes even more important.

    Why being the “intelligent customer” is important?
    Acquiring such knowledge influences the whole chain of decision making. It is absolutely fundamental that understanding capabilities allows intelligent planning of user needs to deliver operationally on the policy. This allows procurement to be in control as the intelligent customer negotiating with suppliers.

    1. The process starts with early policy making where decision makers should have a broad understanding of capabilities that are available to aid good decisions understanding the challenges to actually deliver on policy.

    2. As ideas move to implementation such knowledge of the capabilities of supporting software should allow for a rapid assimilation of the requirements, likely costs and skills to deliver. The big challenge is always dealing with legacy and with knowledge of how these fit into new available capabilities is very important.

    3. As the procurement teams get involved so specifications can be drawn up with detailed business outcomes and specify capabilities, but in knowledge such capabilities do exist.

    4. Responses to requirements should both simpler and an early “commissioning” review possibly linked to a quick prototype will produce accurate estimates of man days required and thus accurate budgeted cost before putting to the market.

    How to achieve this knowledge?
    A learning society needs to ask good questions. Government must have in place research resources that track emerging trends and new technologies. With wide dissemination of information in today’s connected world this could be a one man part-time job perhaps supported by external experts giving advice with transfer of knowledge.

    It is important that it is recognised that very often real technology innovation comes from SMEs and here it is vital to recognise their innovation if proven is articulated as an expected capability in the procurement process as indicated above. Technology SMEs are not equipped to bid direct for large contracts so it is important that the Government as the customer articulates their need knowing what the market can currently offer. Government need to have a process in place to encourage innovators. Again this is not difficult and need not be expensive but recognise it is a dynamic market place and once knowledge acquired a method should be established to distribute efficiently.

    These basic key issues should be a core part of thinking and action by Government to ensure good questions of suppliers leading to sound decision making in buying or creating software solutions supporting government services. From this comes the encouragement of proven innovations to be recognised and helping both save money and become a global economic generator for the UK. This whole concept could apply across the spectrum of Government needs but where “technology” is involved it becomes very important.

    Once such knowledge is gained the procurement terms should reflect what is expected from both the capabilities in the software and the outcomes from the solutions. “IT” failures will significantly reduce if not be eliminated as effectively the interpretation gap between users and IT is closed. The investment becomes future proof with constant change supported and even encouraged to see continuous efficiency improvements


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