Category Archives: Cloud

Big IT suppliers and their Whitehall “hostages”

By Tony Collins

Mark Thompson is a senior lecturer in information systems at Cambridge Judge Business School, ICT futures advisor to the Cabinet Office and strategy director at consultancy Methods.

Last month he said in a Guardian comment that central government departments are “increasingly being held hostage by a handful of huge, often overseas, suppliers of customised all-or-nothing IT systems”.

Some senior officials are happy to be held captive.

“Unfortunately, hostage and hostage taker have become closely aligned in Stockholm-syndrome fashion.

“Many people in the public sector now design, procure, manage and evaluate these IT systems and ignore the exploitative nature of the relationship,” said Thompson.

The Stockholm syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages bond with their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them.

This month the Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued  a pre-tender notice for Oracle ERP systems. Worth between £250m and £750m, the framework will be open to all central government departments, arms length bodies and agencies and will replace the current “Prism” contract with Capgemini.  

It’s an old-style centralised framework that, says Chris Chant, former Executive Director at the Cabinet Office who was its head of G-Cloud, will have Oracle popping champagne corks. 

“This is a 1993 answer to a 2013 problem,” he told Computer Weekly.

In the same vein, Georgina O’Toole at Techmarketview says that central departments are staying with big Oracle ERP systems.   

She said the framework “appears to support departments continuing to run Oracle or, indeed, choosing to move to Oracle”. This is “surprising as when the Shared Services strategy was published in December, the Cabinet Office continued to highlight the cost of running Oracle ERP…”

She said the framework sends a  message that the Cabinet Office has had to accept that some departments and agencies are not going to move away from Oracle or SAP.

“The best the Cabinet Office can do is ensure they are getting the best deal. There’s no doubt there will be plenty of SIs looking to protect their existing relationships by getting a place on the FCO framework.”

G-Cloud and open standards?

Is the FCO framework another sign that the Cabinet Office, in trying to cut the high costs of central government IT, cannot break the bond – the willing hostage-captive relationship –  between big suppliers and central departments?

The framework appears to bypass G-Cloud in which departments are not tied to a particular company. It also appears to cock a snook at the idea of replacing  proprietary with open systems.

Mark Thompson said in his Guardian comment: 

– Administrative IT systems, which cost 1% of GDP, have become a byword for complexity, opacity, expense and poor delivery.

– Departments can break free from the straitjackets of their existing systems and begin to procure technology in smaller, standardised building blocks, creating demand for standard components across government. This will provide opportunities for less expensive SMEs and stimulate the local economy.

– Open, interoperable platforms for government IT will help avoid the mass duplication of proprietary processes and systems across departments that currently waste billions.

–  A negative reaction to the government’s open standards policy from some monopolistic suppliers is not surprising.

Comment

It seems that Oracle and the FCO have convinced each other that the new framework represents change.  But, as Chris Chant says, it is more of the same.

If there is an exit door from captivity the big suppliers are ushering senior officials in departments towards it saying politely “you first” and the officials are equally deferential saying “no – you first”. In the end they agree to stay where they are.

Will Thompson’s comments make any difference?

Some top officials in central departments – highly respected individuals – will dismiss Thompson’s criticisms of government IT because they believe the civil service and its experienced suppliers are doing a good job: they are keeping systems of labyrinthine complexity running unnoticeably smoothly for the millions of people who rely on government IT.

Those officials don’t want to mess too much with existing systems and big IT contracts in case government systems start to become unreliable which, they argue, could badly affect millions of people.

These same officials will advocate reform of systems of lesser importance such as those involving government websites; and they will champion agile and IT-related reforms that don’t affect them or their big IT contracts.

In a sense they are right. But they ignore the fact that government IT costs much too much. They may also exaggerate the extent to which government IT works well. Indeed they are too quick to dismiss criticisms of government IT including those made by the National Audit Office.

In numerous reports the NAO has drawn attention to weaknesses such as the lack of reliable management information and unacceptable levels of fraud and internal error in the big departments. The NAO has qualified the accounts of the two biggest non-military IT spending departments, the DWP and HMRC.

Ostensible reformers are barriers to genuine change.  They need to be replaced with fresh-thinking civil servants who recognise the impossibility of living with mega IT contracts.

Mark Thompson’s Guardian article.

Frustrated with the system – Govt CIOs, executive directors, change agents

By Tony Collins

Today The Times reports, in a series of articles, of tensions in Whitehall between ministers and an “unwilling civil service” over the pace of change.

It says a “permanent cold war” is being conducted with the utmost courtesy. It refers to Downing Street’s lack of control.

In one of the Times articles, Sir Antony Jay, co-creator of the “Yes Minister” TV series, writes that the civil service is more prepared to cut corners than in the 1970s  but hasn’t really changed. “If a civil servant from the 1970s came back today they would probably slot in pretty easily,” says Jay.

Politicians want “eye-catching” change while civil servants “don’t want to be blamed for cock-ups”, he says.

Separately, Mike Bracken, Executive Director of Digital in the Cabinet Office, has suggested that a frustration with the system extends to CIOs, executive directors to corporate change agents.

Bracken created the Government Digital Service which is an exemplar of digital services.  His philosophy is it’s cheaper and better to build, rent or pull together a new product, or at least a minimum feasible product, than go through the “twin horrors of an elongated policy process followed by a long procurement”.

Bracken has the eye of an outsider looking in. Before joining the Cabinet Office in July 2011 he was Director of Digital Development at the Guardian.

Bracken’s blog gives an account of his 18 months in office and why it is so hard to effect change within departments. I’ve summarised his blog in the following bullet points, at the risk of oversimplifying his messages:

Collective frustration

–  After joining the Cabinet Office in 2011 Bracken made a point of meeting senior officials who’d had exalted job titles, from CIOs and executive directors to corporate change agents. “While many of them banked some high-profile achievements, the collective reflection was frustration with and at the system,” says Bracken.

Civil service versus citizen’s needs

–  “I’ve lost count of the times when, in attempting to explain a poorly performing transaction or service, an explanation comes back along the lines of ‘Well, the department needs are different…’ How the needs of a department or an agency can so often trump the needs of the users of public services is beyond me,” says Bracken.

– Policy-making takes priority over delivery, which makes the civil service proficient at making policy and poor at delivery. “Delivery is too often the poor relation to policy,” says Bracken. Nearly 20,000 civil servants were employed in ‘policy delivery’ in 2009. Each government department produces around 171 policy or strategy documents on average each year. Bracken quotes one civil servant as saying: “The strategy was flawless but I couldn’t get anything done.”

Are citizen needs poisonous to existing suppliers?

– Departmental needs take priority over what the public wants. Bracken suggests that user needs – the needs of the citizen – are poison to the interests of policymakers and existing suppliers. “Delivery based on user need is like kryptonite to policy makers and existing suppliers, as it creates rapid feedback loops and mitigates against vendor lock-in,” says Bracken.

– “When it comes to digital, the voices of security and the voices of procurement dominate policy recommendations. The voice of the user [citizen] barely gets a look-in. ( Which also explains much of the poor internal IT, but that really is another story.)”

A vicious circle

Bracken says that new IT often mirrors clunky paper-based processes. [It should usually reflect new, simplified and standardised processes.] “For digital services, we usually start with a detailed policy. Often far too detailed, based not just on Ministerial input, but on substantial input from our existing suppliers of non-digital services. We then look to embed that in current process, or put simply, look for a digital version of how services are delivered in different channels. This is why so many of our digital services look like clunky, hard-to-use versions of our paper forms: because the process behind the paper version dictates the digital thinking.”

Then things take a turn for the worse, says Bracken. “The policy and process are put out to tender, and the search for the elusive ‘system’ starts. Due to a combination of European procurement law and a reliance on existing large IT contracts, a ‘system’ is usually procured, at great time and expense.

“After a long number of months, sometimes years, the service is unveiled. Years after ‘requirements’ were gathered, and paying little attention to the lightning-quick changes in user expectation and the digital marketplace, the service is unveiled to all users as the finished product.

“We then get the user feedback we should have had at the start. Sadly it’s too late to react. Because these services have been hard-wired, like the IT contract which supplied them, our services simply can’t react to the most valuable input: what users think and how they behave.

“As we have found in extreme examples, to change six words the web site of one of these services can take months and cost a huge amount, as, like IT contracts, they are seen as examples of ‘change control’ rather than a response to user need.

“If this 5-step process looks all too familiar that’s because you will have seen it with much of how Government approaches IT. It’s a process which is defined by having most delivery outsourced, and re-inforced by having a small number of large suppliers adept at long-term procurement cycles.

“It is, in short, the opposite of how leading digital services are created, from Amazon to British Airways, from Apple to Zipcar, there is a relentless focus on, and reaction to, user need…”

GOV.UK the civil service exemplar?

Bracken says: “In the first 10 days after we released the full version of GOV.UK in October 2012, we made over 100 changes to the service based on user feedback, at negligible cost. And the final result of this of this approach is a living system, which is reactive to all user needs, including that of policy colleagues with whom we work closely to design each release.”

Bracken says long procurements can be avoided.  “When we created GOV.UK, we created an alpha of the service in 12 weeks … We made it quickly, based on the user needs we knew about… As we move towards a Beta version, where the service is becoming more comprehensive, we capture thousands of pieces of feedback, from user surveys, A/B testing and summative tests and social media input.

“This goes a long way to inform our systems thinking, allowing us to use the appropriate tools for the job, and then replace them as the market provides better products or as our needs change. This of course precludes lengthy procurements and accelerates the time taken for feedback to result in changes to live services.”

Comment:

More big government projects could follow GOV.UK’s example, though some officials in their change-resistant departments would say their systems are too complex for easy-to-reach solutions. But a love of complexity is the hiding place of the dull-minded.

The Times describes the conflicts between the civil servants and ministers as a “crisis”. But conflicts between civil servants and ministers are a good thing. The best outcomes flow from a state of noble tension.

It’s natural for some senior civil servants to oppose change because it can disrupt the smooth running of government, leading potentially to the wrong, or no payments, to the most vulnerable.  It’s up to ministers like Francis Maude to oppose this argument on the basis that the existing systems of administration are inefficient, partly broken and much too costly.

A lazy dependence on the way things are will continue to enfeeble the civil service. Ministers who push for simplicity will always come into conflict with civil servants who quietly believe that simplicity demeans the important work they do. To effect change some sensible risks are worth taking.

The reports of a covert and courteous war between parts of the civil service and ministers are good news. They are signs that change is afoot. Consensus is far too expensive.

Lessons from Birmingham Council’s joint venture with Capita

By Tony Collins

A report on Service Birmingham – Capita’s joint venture with Birmingham City Council – shows that the deal has been largely successful so far but that trust and relationships may be breaking down in some areas.

The “High-Level” review of Service Birmingham by the Best Practice Group could be read in two ways: as a qualified endorsement of the deal so far, or as a warning that a deteriorating relationship in some areas could end up, in years to come, as a legal dispute.

The report’s authors suggest that the council and Capita have little choice but to make improvements given that the contract lasts another nine years. They say:

“Given the fact that the commercial partnership has a further nine years to operate, there is an inherent risk that unless a core focus for both parties is re-established, the commercial trust between BCC [Birmingham City Council and SB [Service Birmingham] will continue to deteriorate.

“Neither party will benefit from the relationship if this situation is permitted to manifest itself.”

In another part of its report the Best Practice Group says:

“BCC and SB seemed to overcome early challenges in their relationship by having a ‘great common cause’. The Council entered into this relationship in 2006 because it had the foresight to realise it had to fundamentally transform how it operated in order to improve social outcomes for its population…

“Now the transformation has largely been successful and the initiatives are almost complete, the level of innovation seems to have stalled and the relationship has deteriorated. Somewhere in the fire-fighting, both BCC and SB have lost sight of the next ‘great common cause’ – the fact that the Council needs to further reduce the cost of ICT service delivery by £20m per annum. This will require some significant ‘outside the box’ thinking about how to achieve from both BCC and SB.”

Below are verbatim extracts from the Best Practice Group’s report which highlight some of the lessons arising from of the joint venture so far. The sub-headings (in italics) are mine.

Extracts from Best Practice Group’s report:

Service Birmingham charges a fee even when the council implements services outside the joint venture – poor value and reputedly poor practice?

“SB has an on-going contractual duty to ensure it provides independently benchmarked best value in the services it delivers to BCC [Birmingham City Council]. As part of these arrangements, BCC can request specific third party services (outside SB’s own delivery capability) with SB applying a fee for ‘contract management’.

“However, these situations vary considerably, raising the question of how to maximise value. The contract management fee would be considered high value when BCC gives SB a service outcome it wants to achieve, and SB researches the market, provides options and recommendations to BCC, sources the best value vendor, and ensures the solution is implemented and the business outcomes achieved.

“In other situations, BCC already knows the outcome to be achieved, how to achieve it and who the best value vendor is, and can implement the solution itself. However, the same contract management percentage still applies to these cases. This causes resentment for the service area involved because they cannot see how SB has added to the process, and in real terms, is perceived by BCC as very poor value. Although the sums involved are minimal compared with the relationship’s overall cost, it is highly visible as an area of poor value and reputedly bad practice, and needs to be realigned.”

Service Birmingham needs to make a significant return for its shareholders

“Given the relationship challenges between BCC and SB, there are a couple of fundamental points to address, namely that: (a) certain individuals within the Council need to understand that SB is not a social enterprise, a public sector mutual, or a charity, and needs to make a significant return on its capital for its shareholders, and (b) SB needs to understand that the Council is in a significantly deteriorating financial position due to Government cutbacks.”

SB drops its prices when challenged

“There have been statements made by a number of the officers in the Council that SB drops its prices when challenged, especially when the Council has investigated alternative industry offerings. SB have suggested that it is only when the challenge arises that initial data is clarified and therefore, more focused pricing can be provided.”

A hardened commercial stance in some circumstances?

“… these obvious and immediate savings are now being met with a hardened commercial stance for anything that falls outside of the core deliverables by SB.”

The cloud imposes hidden costs for SB

“Regardless of whether a scale of mark-up can be achieved, one issue that is clear from the interviews undertaken is that SB/BCC needs to educate the BCC service areas at all levels around what the contract management mark-up actually buys for the Council from SB. At present, for example, there is a lack of understanding within BCC service areas that having ‘cloud’ delivered solutions within the overall portfolio does still incur hidden costs for SB in supporting the overall infrastructure and managing the intermediate fault–reporting service.”

Staff survey on SB – mixed results

“With regards to the survey, 63% stated that they talk ‘positively’ about SB to their colleagues. Slightly less, 59%, believe SB understands the requirements and support needed to deliver the Council’s services. However, when asked if they would naturally think to contact SB for help and advice in situations where they were thinking about undertaking new ICT related work, only 33% of the Council respondents said that they would…

“When asked the direct question of how satisfied they were overall with the service delivered by SB, only 15% of the respondents felt that the service was less than satisfactory. However, only 10% believed that it was excellent with 39% rating it as satisfactory and 36% rating the service received as good.”

Project concerns

“There is a feeling which was voiced by several interviewees from the Council that project implementation often runs behind schedule and ultimately it is the ‘loudest project to shout’ which will then have the scarce resources allocated to it at the cost of other projects.”

Lack of commercial trust

“…there are elements of the KPI [key performance indicator] reporting received from SB that BCC need clarity on . This, coupled with the general lack of commercial trust between the parties and the fact that BCC have shown that SB have reported some data incorrectly (after discussion around interpretation), means that the KPIs are not fully aligned to the business outcomes BCC now needs to achieve in the current financial climate.”

Seeds of a possible legal dispute in future years between the two sides?

“One point that should be highlighted is that we believe there is a misalignment between both parties view of what partnership working actually entails. From the perspective of some service areas within BCC, they view certain individuals within SB as uncooperative. In a similar vein, there are certain individuals within SB who view specific BCC staff also as uncooperative. It should be noted that these individuals within both BCC and SB are in the minority.

“However, such un-cooperation is manifesting itself into a perception of a lack of commercial trust in both camps. Some BCC individuals are not really taking into account, or understanding, that SB is a commercial organisation that has a majority shareholding by a publically listed company. Its commercial shareholders need to see financial returns from SB that increase annually…

“In the early stages, the working relationship was put firmly on the rails by having a ‘great common cause’. The transformation requirements of BCC were so fundamental, it seems many differences of opinion were set aside and both parties worked very hard to overcome the obstacles in ensuring the transformation was successful. Largely, that was achieved. Now that the original transformation process has almost all been completed, the parties working relationship seems to have deteriorated in certain instances. This pattern of behaviour is normal in most strategic vendor relationships.”

SB more expensive than the average in certain areas?

“SB appear to be significantly more expensive than average in the areas of voice, data and converged service provision (KPI-17). The most significant of the three costs provided is the provision of Data services where SB are the worst value of all of the respondents in the SOCITM survey with a cost of £227 per data outlet (capital + support) compared to a median of £118. At the time of writing this report, no clarification had been provided as to the reasons for the significant difference between the SB provided cost and the survey median. When KPI-17 is reviewed as a cost per user, SB fairs much better across the service types. It has a cost of £321 per user compared to a median of £290 per user. However if you consider that this £31 per user per year, it actually represents over £600k per annum above average.”

Council concerns over SAP work going abroad

“Different parties within BCC perceived that in the interest of cost savings, SB was passing some work on SAP projects to an off-shore organisation, rather than using the UK workforce. It should be noted that the contract allows for the off-shoring of SAP work, but only where such work does not adversely impact jobs in the UK.

“A high level review of the SAP project work has identified that SAP work has only been off-shored when the UK workforce does not have the required expertise. In addition, we requested specific evidence from individuals to support their view that work was being off-shored that could have been undertaken by the UK workforce, but this could not be provided.”

The Council was paying for unused phone lines

“… Ultimately, the Council kept receiving invoices from the line provider for what were essentially unused telephone lines. The process ceased promptly after BCC and SB addressed the escalation of the issue.”

Stagnating innovation could widen the divide between the two sides

“It is clear that both parties will continue to feel significant frustration until they can resolve how to share the innovation process, provide resources to help the generation of sound business cases and provide formalised and comprehensive feedback to allow for the implementation of suggestions. These suggestions need to become acceptable to the Council as realistic deliverable solutions. If this does not happen, then innovation between the partners will continue to stagnate, driving a widening divide between the organisations.”

KPIs not always useful?

In the case of the BCC and SB agreement, despite an abundance of KPIs being in place, the Council perceives the contract could be better aligned in order to maximise the behaviours from SB that it needs.

Comment:

The report gives the impression that those running the joint venture must overcome the many problems because the contract still has nine years left to run. Both sides, it seems, are locked into the relationship. In some areas it works. In others it doesn’t.

Capita, clearly, has been trying hard to make the relationship work. Some within the council have too. Some are not so enthusiastic and have been “making noise” according to the report’s authors. Do those making a noise have a point, or are they simply making trouble against the joint venture? The report suggests removing those making a noise. But will that remove some of those who are providing an independent challenge?

So far the relationship has been largely successful; and the survey of staff is generally positive. But there are signs of serious trouble. Innovation is stagnating, the council’s finances are deteriorating and Capita needs to make a profit from the venture. Are these fundamental incompatibilities? Will the relationship really last another nine years, especially if there is more political change within the council?

High-Level Review of Service Birmingham

Government Digital Service sets an example on cloud

By Tony Collins

The Government Digital Service is putting its money where its mouth is. A leading public sector advocate of the cloud, GDS says that the first cloud hosting provider it is working with is Skyscape.

Mark O’Neill, Head of Service Delivery and Innovation at GDS, which is a team of innovators based at the Cabinet Office, writes that GDS is building GOV.UK, currently in beta at http://www.gov.uk.

“In the past, we might have looked at dedicated servers or possibly even our own rack in a datacentre somewhere. We would then have had to decide if we wanted to own the servers or if we should rent them some time to break out amortisation tables and spreadsheets.

“We would have to make sure that we were not locked in if we needed to move servers, so it would be necessary to negotiate break clauses in contracts; we would need to arrange access to server rooms for security accreditation; we would need to… well, the list goes on and on.

“The cloud has transformed all of this. Through the G-Cloud framework we are able to simply and rapidly buy highly reliable, highly cost-effective hosting services.

“Colleagues in GDS put together a statement of our requirements based on the experience we had gained during the alpha and the ongoing beta releases of GOV.UK and experience from the delivery of other major online services, both public and private sector.

“We then tested that statement of requirements against the list of suppliers on the G-Cloud framework. This allowed us to sift the number of potential providers down to four who met the statement of requirements.

“We then invited each of the suppliers in and used a consistent set of questions to explore their ability to meet our needs, their approach to operational service delivery and how they could provide flexible, scalable services through the cloud.

“To meet the needs of GOV.UK, we are planning to work with a number of different Infrastructure as a Service providers. We are happy to announce that the first cloud hosting provider we are working with is Skyscape.

“We have used G-Cloud previously for a number of small projects covering services like hosting and operations. We were very happy to discover that letting a major service contract for our flagship platform, GOV.UK, was equally straightforward and quick.

“Whilst the GOV.UK contract is the largest we have let so far, it is one of an increasing number we are letting through G-Cloud, which is now our standard way of procuring infrastructure services… If you have not used G-Cloud before then take a look, you will be pleasantly surprised. In the words of a song of my youth, ‘It was easy. It was cheap. Go and do it!'”

Introducing a new supplier – Skyscape

The debate over G-Cloud – have your say

By David Bicknell

A debate is running over the Government’s plans for G-Cloud. It follows Chris Chant’s Unacceptable IT is pervasive blog on his departure, a response to the comments received on Chant’s blog by his successor, Denise McDonagh, about Cloud Cynicism, and now, and this must break some new ground, a government-hosted ‘crowdsourcing’ opportunity for you to have your say and influence the debate.

Please add your thoughts here

Home Office’s IT Director McDonagh to take over Chant role at G-Cloud

By David Bicknell

Denise McDonagh, currently director of IT at the Home Office, is to take over responsibility for G-Cloud from Chris Chant who leaves at the end of the month.

In this announcement, as well as discussing McDonagh’s role as Chant’s replacement on G-Cloud, the government said that it is on track to launch the next iteration of the G-Cloud framework in late or early May.  It will incorporate a new approach that incorporates the ability to add new suppliers and services on a quarterly (or possibly more frequent) basis.  It suggests that this will be a procurement first in the UK, and possibly even in the world.  Existing G-Cloud suppliers should be able to move to the new framework with just a small amount of effort, it says. A series of new deals on the framework is also set  to be to announced.

Prior to the announcement of his departure, Chant had written a blog post that argued that unnacceptable IT is pervasive.

He suggested that:

“Real progress has been blocked by many things including an absence of capability in both departments and their suppliers, by a strong resistance to change, by the perverse incentives of contracts that mean its cheaper to pay service credits than to fix the problem and by an unwillingness to embrace the potential of newer and smaller players to offer status quo-busting ideas.

“CIOs across government, including me in various roles at the centre of government, have been guilty for too long of taking the easy path.  We have done the unacceptable and thought we were doing a great job.  We have:

  • Signed contracts with single suppliers that have led to both poor service and high costs, because that is the way government did things
  • Failed to let in innovative suppliers because of the constraints of those large contracts, because new suppliers, we figured, brought risk and uncertainty
  • Designed and delivered solutions that look, in today’s world, ridiculously expensive and over-engineered because we thought that was the right thing to do
  • Allowed our users to suffer with IT that is a decade – or more – behind what they are using at home because the security considerations for government are different and stricter from those for everyone else”

But, over the last 18 months, working on G-Cloud as well as the immediate forerunner of the Government Digital Service, Chant said he had seen the real signs of change, with some in the public sector no longer willing to put up with the poor service and delivery that they have experienced and they are actively looking for new ways of working. Notably, he suggested, big departments openly talk about wanting to get away from the traditional model of big, cumbersome IT and are serious.

Now, he went on, things get harder, notably:

Managing Multiple Suppliers

  • Departments are no longer going to have an easy ride as they seek to extend an existing contract or renew what they have now (a large single supplier monopoly over their IT).   They’re going to be pushed to break up contracts into smaller pieces, contract with or involve more SMEs and reuse what is already in place elsewhere.    There is no better place to start than by getting something you already have, or something that you need to have, from the G-Cloud framework. CIOs will need to increase the capability of their teams – and their own capability too – otherwise they will find that they are no longer playing a part in this new approach.  Some CIOs and some teams will not be able to make that transition.

Apples With Apples

  • For years, obtaining data about what government pays for IT and, worse, what it gets for that money has been mission impossible.  With transparency, increasing use of frameworks and smaller contracts, it will be easier than it has ever been to compare like for like costs across departments. CIOs will want to get ahead of that curve now and find out what their IT is truly costing them so that they can compare what new market offers really provide and whether it is worth making an early switch – and the pressure to make that switch before the end of the contract is only likely to increase as the true size of cost reductions becomes evident.

Digital By Default

  • The need to design services around the customer will become pervasive -whether that customer is a citizen in front of a web browser at home or one of our own staff working in an office.  The shift to “digital by default” (rather than “digital as well”) is fundamental and will cause a wholesale upheaval in organisations across government.   People who thought they were in charge of delivering transactions probably won’t be. People who are on the inside of government might find themselves moved to the outside and entirely new product offers will come about as a result.

IT in government has certainly come a long way, he insisted, but added that “..it just hasn’t come far enough.  It remains unacceptable.  The trends of the last couple of years – transparency, open data, open services, SMEs – aren’t going away; if anything, they will go stronger and bed in deeper.”

What needs to happen next, Chant said, is that:

  • CIOs across government need to recognise what has changed and stop hiding behind the comfort blanket of what has always been done before. That blanket is on fire.
  • Big suppliers should see the smoke from that comfort blanket and recognise that the world of government IT has changed.  They can no longer rely on delivering poor service for big money and get away with it.  The customer approach is changing and they will need to change too, or be consumed by the flames.
  • SMEs should embrace the opportunity they now have and bring their capabilities – speed, flexibility and low prices – to the government market.  For the first time, government is ready.

(My Campaign4Change colleague Tony Collins is currently away, but will be back shortly)

G-Cloud chief Chris Chant to retire

How the Government plans to ensure IT projects have a lifetime cost of under £100m

By David Bicknell

The Government has issued a Procurement Policy Note that sets out its thinking behind the policy that individual ICT contracts or projects should have a lifetime cost of less than £100m.

It says the £100m limit will apply to all future ICT projects, “unless a strong case can be made that doing so increases the overall cost to the taxpayer, notably increases the risk of failure or increases the security threat to the public body or Government as a whole.”

It adds that in future, “government IT contracts will be more flexible, starting with two areas (application software and infrastructure IT). The Government is introducing set breakpoints in IT contracts so there is less money locked into large lengthy contracts. The Government will look to disaggregate future contracts and deliver more flexible, cheaper solutions. This opens up opportunities for SMEs and reduces the cost to taxpayers.”

Its guidance, which takes effect from 1st April, applies to all central government departments, their agencies and non departmental public bodies and is particularly intended for those with a purchasing role.

In background notes, the briefing says:

  • The £100m threshold relates to all ICT contracts or projects where the total value over the life of the contract exceeds £100m regardless of how the contract is funded. It includes frameworks as well as individual call offs from frameworks. A case may be made for exemption from this policy on the grounds of national security or continuity of a critical Government service.

Based on this, the policy aims are as follows:

  • To reduce the risk of single supplier failure within a large project;
  • To increase competition and innovation by enabling more suppliers to bid and take part in projects, thereby increasing value to the taxpayer;
  • To procure contracts in a way which ensures maximum possible benefit to the maximum number of parties – for example, ensuring that infrastructure/services which are procured can be used by more than one department.

In a foreword, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude says:

“The Government believes that business is the driver of economic growth and innovation, and that we need to take urgent action to boost enterprise and build a new and more responsible economic model. We want to create a fairer and more balanced economy, where we are not so dependent on a narrow range of economic sectors, and where new businesses and economic opportunities are more evenly shared between regions and industries. This guidance is founded on a desire to minimise the risk around high value contracts and ensure that Government always seeks the best possible value for money when procuring large ICT contracts.

“In the Coalition Programme the Government made a commitment to promote small business procurement in particular by introducing an aspiration that 25% of government contracts should be awarded to small and medium sized businesses. To deliver this aspiration the Prime Minister and The Minister for the Cabinet Office announced, on the 11th February 2011, a far reaching package of measures to open up public procurement to small and medium sized enterprises. The Government ICT Strategy, published at the end of March 2011 outlined a new approach to ICT procurement that improves contract delivery timelines and reduces the risk of project failure, enables greater use of SMEs, a much shorter timescale and lower costs to all parties.

“We will end the practice of attempting to cover every requirement in great detail and cover every legal eventuality in every project and contract, thereby increasing the procurement cost and timescales to all parties to unacceptable levels. We will do this by focusing on the 80/20 rule, simplifying to the core components of the requirements at every level and at every stage of a project.

On SMEs, G-Cloud and Open Systems, the policy note says procurement will:

  • Ensure value for money, competition and innovation by ensuring that small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are freely able to bid. Ensuring that any procurement process we use does not unnecessarily exclude them due to price, risk or resource associated with bidding activity. This includes reviewing our criteria and evidence required as part of the contract award process for items that might be relevant to a large company only. However, SMEs will be treated no differently in evaluation of capability, financial stability, or their ability to provide ongoing support, etc.
  • Ensure visibility of innovation and encourage mass purchasing of solutions available from both within the public sector and the private sector by creating a quality assured Government Cloud based procurement vehicle for Government, which enables all sizes of organisations to showcase their products, services, solutions etc. This service would also enable government to market and sell any unwanted assets it might own.
  • Encourage and maximise the use of Open Source/Open Standards whenever possible and where it represents a value for money solution, allowing department to re-use code, designs, templates etc. ensuring that work is not duplicated.

Comment

The Government’s aspiration to have individual ICT contracts or projects with a lifetime cost of less than £100m is a worthy one. But the proof of the pudding, as always, is in the eating. And we haven’t seen the pudding yet.

SMEs – when to choose them and when not

By Ian Makgill

The key to giving business to SMEs is to understand when SME suppliers can meet the needs of government and when it is best not to try and resist the gravitational pull of a large supplier.  

Some of this is obvious.  You wouldn’t expect the government to award banking services or insurance contracts to an SME. On the other hand, there is no real reason why legal services or consulting contracts can’t be provided almost entirely by SMEs, with only a couple of larger providers required for national programmes with multiple sites. In fact, it is a great shame that Government Procurement Service’s (GPS) new tender for consulting services does not utilise the regional model that they’ve previously used for temporary medical staff.

GPS has scored a couple of hits with SMEs, firstly with the appointment of Redfern Travel as the preferred travel management provider and secondly, with the choice to let the G-Cloud IT framework. It may be that Redfern ceases to meet the exact criteria of being an SME once the contract is fully embedded in Central Government, but that’s the whole point, to drive growth through smaller businesses. The G-Cloud framework provides a meaningful opportunity for SME suppliers to sell complex services to government, and may also help government to break their addiction to monolithic, large scale IT projects (as typified by the CSA’s latest IT tender with 90,000 specified requirements.)

Cloud services offer a remarkable opportunity for small teams to serve millions of people. A good example is 37signals, a Chicago web design company that created a project management tool called Basecamp. Its team of 32 staff currently service three million customers.

It is equally important to know when not to try and counter market forces.

Take agency staff.

We’ve been doing some very detailed work in this area, and there is an inexorable move towards using large, national suppliers. These suppliers can provide much more competitive margins and better services and data to public bodies. The market is healthy in terms of competition and there is room for smaller suppliers to become second tier suppliers to some of the national companies. Clearly the option to become a second tier supplier, or to lose their existing business is not good news for smaller suppliers, but with such strong benefits available to public bodies it would make no sense to try and resist developments that are affecting the whole market.

There needs to be a much deeper understanding of the characteristics of contracts that can be fulfilled by SME suppliers and a comprehensive strategy to follow up on that work, and to prevent government issuing restrictive tenders that see SMEs unnecessarily barred from doing business with Government, or spin-out mutuals facing procurement hurdles that are inappropriate to them. Until that strategic work is done, then there is a risk that the appointment of SMEs to government contracts will be haphazard, with a few notable successes and far too many failures.

Ian Makgill is the Managing Director of Govmark, researchers who specialise in government contracting.

Download Govmark’s report into agency staff in local government

Coming soon, credit ratings-like agencies for Cloud service providers

By David Bicknell

You won’t get many positive thoughts towards credit ratings agencies, particularly from European governments, several of whom have suffered the ignominy of seeing their coveted Triple A status downgraded.

Now imagine that same credit ratings approach for Cloud service providers. The research group Gartner has, and put forward its thoughts in an article reported in The Australian. (registration required)

Gartner’s research vice-president Brian Prentice says the need for credible external rating agencies for cloud service providers will become more urgent this year, because current industry performance contracts are unable to quantify, or be accountable for, the costly and potentially devastating indirect effects that Cloud-based service failures have on businesses.

Gartner believes trying to mitigate risk using service level agreements will prove unwieldy for companies, because they are often dealing directly with consultancies that on-sell cloud services in complex multi-tiered agreements.

“The issue here is that it’s very hard to expect the vendors to have a set of impacts on their business commensurate with the problems that could come up. What that means is that you can’t come back on that, and you have to do the assessment on whether the problem is going to show up in the first place,” says Prentice. He envisages that ratings agencies, operating on similar lines to those in the finance sector, will emerge for cloud service companies by the end of the year.

This is an intriguing idea. I wonder where these ratings agencies will emerge from, and how they will compete. Will we see a Big Three emerge, like Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch? How will they compete with each other? How quickly will they be able to gain a reputation that companies can rely on? And on what will that reputation be based? Is this something that the management consultancy one-stop-shops will offer? Or will pure-play Cloud ratings agencies emerge?   

One article recently suggested credit ratings agencies rule the world. Could something similar soon be ruling the Cloud too?

How credit ratings agencies rule the world

CIOs must lead business change with consumerisation, Cloud focus

By David Bicknell

Some work published by PwC in the US has argued that top-performing U.S. organisations show greater mastery in how they leverage digital technologies by the way they embrace consumerisation, the Cloud and social media.

The management company’s Digital IQ survey says these companies are offering mobile tools for customers, measuring data through social media, mobilising applications to the public cloud and are applying innovative use of business intelligence. It also finds that most enterprises are still playing catch-up on the consumerisation of IT.

PwC believes the CIO plays a critical role in the planning process for increasing a company’s Digital IQ. It argues that CIOs must be excellent at managing the internal factory, but also excel at mobilising new plans into action.  

The Digital IQ findings call for business leaders — and, in particular, today’s CIOs — to lead their organisations to change and innovate from the inside out. The report findings suggest that excellence in IT has not been commoditised and is still differentiating as a competitive advantage. Indeed, IT-enabled, multi-channel connections with customers can make a marked difference to business results. But to succeed, today’s CIOs — and the C-suite more broadly — must excel at not just managing internally, but also mobilising new plans into action.

PwC argues that a high Digital IQ requires the CIO to find better ways to sift through and drive insight from the increasing torrent of data streaming from every manner of device and interaction, and to create a platform that can deliver these capabilities across a varied set of changing mobile devices.

PwC’s survey showed that 63 percent of respondents revealed their greatest challenge is the inability to gather, understand and act on customer data. Fifty-eight percent cite an inability to quickly understand and adopt the new information technologies needed to be competitive.

“Consumerisation of IT is on the rise, and in the Survey we continue to see a need to serve the mobile customer, move to cloud services, and use data more effectively,” said Chris Curran, principal at PwC. “Organisations that have an integrated strategy—which includes technology—seem to perform better.”

For those interested in the consumerisation of IT, the Corporate IT Forum is holding a summit on the subject in London on 22nd February.  You can find out more details here