Category Archives: EU procurement

Whitehall to auto-extend outsourcing deals using Brexit as excuse?

By Tony Collins

Type of government procurement spend 2014-2015. ICT is the top item.
Source: National Audit Office

Under a headline “UK outsourcing deals extended because of Brexit workload”, the Financial Times has reported that “hundreds of government contracts with the private sector that were due to expire are to be automatically extended because civil servants are too busy with Brexit to focus on new and better-value tenders”.

The FT says the decision to roll over the contracts could prove expensive for taxpayers because it limits competition and undermines government efforts to improve procurement.

A “procurement adviser to the government” whom the FT doesn’t name, said more than 250 contracts were either close to expiring or had already expired in 2016-17. The adviser told the FT,

“Brexit has pushed them down the list of priorities so there are lots of extensions and re-extensions of existing deals.”

The adviser added that this was the only way civil servants could prioritise the huge increase in Brexit-related work since the referendum.

Extensions

The FT provides no evidence of automatic contract extensions or the claim that deals will be extended because of the civil service’s Brexit workload.

There is evidence, however, that Whitehall officials tend to extend contracts beyond their original expiry date.

In a report published this year on the Cabinet Office’s Crown Commercial Service, the National Audit Office identified 22 framework contracts that were due to expire in 2016-17. Half of them (eleven) were extended beyond their original expiry date.

[The Crown Commercial Service was set up in 2014 to improve state procurement.]

The NAO also found that Whitehall departments – and the Crown Commercial Service – have been awarding contracts using expired framework deals, even though this contravenes public contracting regulations.

In 2015-16, 21 of the 39 frameworks that were due to expire were extended without competition or market testing, according to the NAO.

One example of an extended contract is a deal between Capita and the Department for Work and Pensions which started in 2010. Capita provides eligibility assessments for the personal independent payment allowance, which supports for people with long-term ill health or disability.

The five-year deal was extended by two years until July 2019.

Capita has also won a three-year extension to a contract with the Pensions Regulator and the BBC has extended a deal with Capita that was signed originally in 2002 to June 2022 – a total of at least 20 years.

Open competition?

The NAO has found that extending ICT contracts may not always be good for taxpayers. In the later years of their government contracts, suppliers tend to make higher margins (though not always).

There are also suggestions that civil servants will sometimes sign contract extensions when the performance of the supplier does not meet expected standards.

On ICT, the Cabinet Office asks central departments to complete a return every six months for each business process outsourcing and facilities management contract above £20m with strategic suppliers.

The survey asks whether the contract is being delivered on time, to scope, to budget, to the appropriate standards, and whether there have been any disputes.

In one study of government contracts with ICT suppliers, the NAO found that, of 259 returns from departments, 42 highlighted problems that included,

  • failure to achieve milestones
  • dissatisfaction with quality of outputs
  • errors and other issues with delivery
  • poor customer engagement and end user dissatisfaction and
  • failure to meet key performance indicators.

Comment

For taxpayers there is some good news.

A break-up of “Aspire”, the biggest IT outsourcing long-term deal of all, between HMRC and Capgemini (and to a lesser extent Fujitsu) – worth about £9bn – is going ahead this June. An HMRC spokesman says,

“HMRC is on track to complete the phased exit from Aspire, as planned, by June 2017.”

And according to Government Computing, Defra’s IT outsourcing contracts with IBM and Capgemini under a £1.6bn contract called “Unity” are due to expire in 2018 and there are no signs the deals will be extended.

But the Department for Work and Pensions’ huge IT outsourcing contracts with the same major suppliers are renewed routinely and not always with open competition. The DWP says on its website,

“DWP contracts are awarded by competition between potential suppliers, unless there are compelling reasons why competition cannot be used.”

The DWP doesn’t define “compelling”. Nor is it clear whether its auditors look at whether the DWP has put up a compelling case for not putting a large IT contract out to open competition.

In 2014 the Public Accounts Committee, after investigating major suppliers to government, concluded,

“Government is clearly failing to manage performance across the board, and to achieve the best for citizens out of the contracts into which they have entered.

“Government needs a far more professional and skilled approach to managing contracts and contractors, and contractors need to demonstrate the high standards of ethics expected in the conduct of public business, and be more transparent about their performance and costs”.

Breaking up is hard to do

The break up of the huge Aspire IT outsourcing contract at HMRC is an exception, not the rule. The NAO has found that civil servants regard their major incumbent suppliers as safe and less risky than hiring a smaller company (that’s not steeped in Whitehall’s culture).

The NAO has also found that in some cases officials don’t know whether their suppliers are performing well or not. On many ICT contracts there is “open book” accounting, but not all departments have the staff or expertise to check regularly on whether their suppliers’ profits are excessive.

If Whitehall, with exceptions, is continuing to roll over contracts whether it’s legal to do so or not, what incentive exists to stick to the rules?

Brexit?

The FT story suggests Brexit is the reason hundreds of contracts are to be extended automatically. There’s probably truth in the automatic extension of some contracts – but it’s unlikely to be because of Brexit.

It’s unlikely that the civil servants involved in Brexit will be the same ones who are handling ICT contract extensions. That said, Brexit will inevitably put a higher workload on lawyers working for government.

If contracts are being extended automatically, it’s probably because that’s the way it has always been, at least within living memory.

While Sir Humphrey and his senior officials remain only nominally accountable to Parliament for how they spend taxpayers’ money, the easiest option of renewing or extending existing contracts will usually be seen as the best option.

It can be justified with “compelling” arguments such as a need to make an urgent decision in difficult circumstances, or the absence of alternative suppliers who have the necessary skills or the financial strength to accept the risks of failure.

Will anything change?

Until departments have to publish contemporaneously their intentions to award contracts without open competition or there is effective accountability within the civil service for major decisions, little is likely to change.

It hasn’t happened yet and there’s no reason to believe it will.  Many politicians including prime ministers have tried to reform the civil service and they haven’t ruffled a single carpet in the corridors of Whitehall.

As Antony Jay, co-writer of Yes Minister,  said in January 2013,

“The central anomaly is that civil servants have years of experience, jobs for life, and a budget of hundreds of billions of pounds, while ministers have, usually, little or no experience of the job and could be kicked out tomorrow.

” After researching and writing 44 episodes and a play, I find government much easier to understand by looking at ministers as public relations consultants to the real government – which is, of course, the Civil Service.”

In short, Brexit is likely to be officialdom’s up-to-date excuse for carrying on much as before.

Thank you to @TimMorton2 for alerting me to the FT article.

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G4S is off the naughty step

By Tony Collins

The BBC says that G4S is again being considered for government business after being barred from bidding for new contracts in a row about overcharging.

In 2012 the Cabinet Office issued a notice to all departments, agencies and other public organisations saying that they should take into account a bidder’s past performance when considering a new contract.

The notice said that officials should satisfy themselves:

– that the principal contracts of those who would provide the goods and/or services have been satisfactorily performed in accordance with their terms

– where there is evidence that this has not occurred in any case, that the reasons for any such failure will not recur if that bidder were to be awarded the relevant contract.

If the Departmental Body remains unsatisfied that the principal contracts of those who would provide the goods and/or services have been satisfactorily performed, it should “exclude that bidder on the grounds that it has failed to meet the minimum standards of reliability set”, said the notice.

It appears that G4S was excluded from bidding on these grounds.

But the company agreed to repay £109m after an audit found it charged too much for providing electronic prisoner tags. The Serious Fraud Office is examining G4S and Serco over the contracts.

The firm has not bid for any government work since the Ministry of Justice started an investigation a year ago into its supply of electronic monitoring tags for prisoners in England and Wales since 2005.

After an audit by accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, it emerged that G4S – which insisted it had asked for the review itself – and Serco had overcharged the government by “tens of millions of pounds”.

Now the Cabinet Office has nothing but good to say about G4S. The CO’s statement says that the payments made by G4S to reimburse the taxpayer are a “positive step”.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude says:

“Following the material concerns that emerged last year, relating to overcharging on Ministry of Justice electronic monitoring contracts, G4S has engaged constructively with the government…

“Throughout, the government has engaged closely with G4S to understand their plans for corporate renewal. These discussions have been constructive; and following scrutiny by officials, review by the Oversight Group and reports from our independent advisors (Grant Thornton), the government has now accepted that the corporate renewal plan represents the right direction of travel to meet our expectations as a customer.

“This does not affect any consideration by the Serious Fraud Office, which acts independently of government, in relation to the material concerns previously identified. However, we are reassured that G4S is committed to act swiftly should any new information emerge from ongoing investigations.

“The changes G4S has already made and its commitment to go further over coming months are positive steps that the government welcomes. However, corporate renewal is an ongoing process and the government places a strong emphasis on their full and timely implementation of the agreed corporate renewal plan.

“The Crown Representative together with Grant Thornton will continue to monitor progress as their plan is implemented, reporting to government on a regular basis. I hope this will enable our confidence to grow.”

Comment:

A company has to do something very serious to be excluded from bidding – and it may be thought that G4S has come off the naughty step too quickly. On the other hand the notice on barring poor suppliers from bidding has a requirement that bidders provide a list of their main customers in the previous three years.  Certificates of satisfaction should be obtained from the customers. If necessary suppliers should obtain the certificates.

This is a useful incentive to suppliers to keep their customers happy.  But will departments implement what would be, in essence, a blacklist?

Thank you to openness campaigner Dave Orr for alerting me to G4S developments.

Defra’s agile plan with multiple suppliers risky says NAO

By Tony Collins

The National Audit Office says in a report published today that Defra’s agile plan which involves outsourcing to multiple IT suppliers has “significant” risks.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs plans to implement a single integrated £80m Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) system built on agile methodologies.

Defra has been working with the Government Digital Service (GDS) to plan an agile implementation and learn from the lessons of the past, the department’s chief operating officer Ian Trenholm told Computer Weekly in January 2013.

Today’s NAO report on Defra’s 2012/13 accounts says that the department is planning the procurement, development and implementation of new systems in line with changes to the way the common agricultural policy operates.

“Development and implementation of these [new systems] will present a number of challenges, including the requirement that data cleansing is completed on time, in order to ensure that accurate and complete data is transferred to the new systems,” says the NAO.

It adds that the IT element of the change programme “will be delivered through an agile approach which involves outsourcing to multiple IT providers”. The NAO says that Defra has recognised a number of significant risks relating to the Programme. “It will need a strong relationship between the Programme team and other important stakeholders, and appropriate governance arrangements, to ensure that these risks are adequately managed and that the Department learns the lessons from the implementation of CAP 2005.”

NAO report on Defra’s 2012/13 accounts.

Comment

Defra and its Rural Payments Agency had a disaster with the Single Payment Scheme which was built on conventional lines through one main supplier. If there are risks with the new agile approach involving multiple suppliers they cannot be as great as spending hundreds of millions of pounds with one company; and working through those new agile-related risks may help other departments find a different and much cheaper way of buying IT, and implementing important policy-related business change.

EC probes IBM CIO secondment at the Met Office

By Tony Collins

A part of the European Commission is investigating a decision by the Met Office to appoint an IBM executive as CIO while he worked at the same time for IBM, the organisation’s main IT supplier.

The investigation was prompted by concerns of campaigner Dave Orr who wrote to the EC about the Met Office’s appointment of an IBM secondee David Young as CIO for two years between 2010 and December 2012.

Now Michel Barnier, the EC Commissioner responsible for internal market and services, says in a letter to Orr’s MEP Sir Graham Watson that the EC’s Directorate-General for Internal Market and Financial Services has been carrying out “an in-depth analysis” of the facts presented by Orr.

As part of this, the EC has written to the UK government seeking clarification on a number of points.

Some of Orr’s concerns arise from the Met Office’s responses – and non-responses – to his freedom of information requests. One of his concerns is of a potentially cosy relationship between the Met Office as a publicly-funded organisation and its principal IT supplier IBM; and he has wanted to know why the job of Met Office CIO was not openly advertised in a competitive recruitment process and whether its appointment of an IBM secondee had the potential for a possible conflict of interest.

Orr said that the secondment had the potential to confer a unique and significant intelligence and relationship advantage for IBM that other supercomputer suppliers could not hope to match. “In my view, that is anti-competitive and may in spirit at least, fail the EU procurement rules,” said Orr.

Barnier said that the existence of a conflict of interest would “depend on a number of factors such as the precise role and responsibilities the position entails, in particular whether it includes formulating and preparing technical specifications or tender documents for future IT contracts that the Met Office may put out to tender”.

It is also relevant, said Barnier, whether the terms and conditions of the secondment “impose any obligations or restrictions on the head of the department to prevent conflicts of interest, both during the secondment and afterwards”. He also wanted to know if internal rules were in place to prevent conflicts of interest in the course of tendering procedures.

The Met Office and ministers said that Young was not involved in procurement decisions relating to existing supercomputer facilities. Norman Lamb, then minister at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, said last year:

“Any potential conflicts of interest regarding David Young’s appointment were fully considered prior to his appointment and his terms of engagement specifically cover these …

“David Young had no involvement in the procurement process for existing supercomputing facilities, either for IBM or the Met Office, and he will have completed his secondment and left the Met Office prior to the selection of replacement supercomputer facilities.”

A wise decision?

The decision to second an IBM employee to run the 300-strong IT department, which is based at the Met Office’s supercomputer site in Exeter, raises questions that may go beyond the potential for a conflict of interest.

As Young was unable to be involved in some buying decisions and was unable to attend the technology strategy board to avoid any potential for a conflict of interest, did the Met Office restrict itself unnecessarily in hiring a CIO who faced these constraints?

Did the Met Office waste money – and a precious two years – hiring a lifeguard whose terms of employment required him to wear handcuffs?

The secondment of Young came at a difficult time for the Met Office – and some of the main difficulties it faced in 2010 are largely the same today.

Responses to Orr’s FOI requests and a report by the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee highlight some of the Met Office’s challenges:

– A need for modernised software that will take advantage of next-generation supercomputers.

– A need for a replacement supercomputer that has twice the power of the existing one which operates close to one petaflop (one thousand million million floating point operations per second).

– Funding a new supercomputer (with optimised software) at a time of cut-backs in government spending.

A Met Office Executive Board paper said that its executives have had “soft” negotiations with various suppliers about next generation supercomputer technology. They spoke to Bull, Cray, Microsoft, NEC and SGI.

“Vendor presentations indicate that performance increases will come from increasing the number of processors and/or adding co processors designed to process arrays of data efficiently, rather than increasing the speed of individual processors,” said the Met Office paper.

The Met Office says that “significant optimisation work will be needed [on the code] and, if this is not completed around 2014, a delay in the launch of the procurement may be unavoidable.” It has been seeking software engineers with experience of Fortran (which was originally developed by IBM) or C, Unix or Linux and Perl.

A House of Commons report in 2012 emphasised the need for new technology at the Met Office. The report of the Science and Technology Committee “Met Office Science” said in February 2012:

“It is of great concern to us that these scientific advances in weather forecasting and the associated public benefits (particularly in regard to severe weather warnings) are ready and waiting but are being held back by insufficient supercomputing capacity. We consider that a step-change in supercomputing capacity is required in the UK.”

MPs acknowledged that “affordability is an issue.”

The Met Office declined to answer Orr’s FOI requests about the cost to the taxpayer of employing Young.

Since Young’s  secondment ended in December 2012 the Met Office has hired one of its own employees as CIO. Charles Ewen has worked for the Met Office since 2008. He works with science teams to operate the Met Office’s high performance computing facilities. He is responsible for the development and implementation of the Met Office’s ICT Strategy and for the internal technical teams within the Technology Information Services Directorate.

Comment:

The Met Office hired Young for the best of reasons: after a succession of internal management changes it wanted a highly professional, stabilising CIO. But did it need a CIO from IBM, its principal IT supplier?

That the Met Office was sheepish about the appointment of an IBM secondee was, perhaps, revealed by its website which, in giving a profile of Young, did not mention – at first – that he was seconded from IBM. After Dave Orr’s FOI requests the Met Office corrected its website omission, making clear that Young was on secondment from IBM.

The Met Office has been in existence nearly 16o years. It was founded by Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy in 1854 as the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade. It is highly regarded internationally. A testament to the quality of its computer models  – which are used for daily forecasts – is that its “Unified Model” is licensed in Norway, Australia, South Korea, South Africa, India, New Zealand and the US Air Force.

Scientists say that a three-day forecast today is as accurate as a one-day forecast was 20 years ago. But in the UK the Met Office gets a bad press – not always unjustifiably.  There is a perception that the accuracy of forecasting is not improving. Sometimes it seems poor.

The algorithms that form the basis of weather and climate models place huge demands on supercomputing architectures. The models produce exceptionally large volumes of data. Although the Met Office had a new IBM supercomputer in 2008 it soon needed more powerful hardware and modernised software.

So was it a good idea, with all the challenges the Met Office faced in 2010 – including the need to persuade the government of the need to fund  new supercomputer facilities – to appoint a CIO for two years who, because he was an IBM secondee, had understandable restrictions on his freedom to do his job, restrictions the Met Office has been reluctant to reveal, despite Dave Orr’s FOI requests?

Hole in the head

The Met Office may regard an EC inquiry into its appointment of an IBM secondee as the last thing it needs now. But accountability should not be left to the occasional scrutiny by a Commons committee – or to Dave Orr’s FOI requests.

Francis Maude –“unacceptable” civil service practices

By Tony Collins

Francis Maude laments civil service inaction over a cabinet committee mandate for centralising procurement. It “corrodes trust in the system”.

Gus O’Donnell, the former head of the civil service,  confronted Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister in charge of civil service reform, on BBC R4’s In Defence of Bureaucracy last week.

The irreconcilable differences between O’Donnell and Maude were obvious and may be a sign of how difficult it will be for the minister to make lasting and deep cuts in IT-based spending, simplify overly complex processes, and reduce duplication.

O’Donnell spoke of the virtues of the civil service that have served the country for more than a century, particularly its impartiality.  But Maude said the “value of impartiality can sometimes turn into indifference”.

O’Donnell said: “We need to be proud and passionate about the public sector ethos…” and confronted Maude for saying things about the civil service “that are not always totally positive”.

Indeed Maude said,

“Most of the civil servants I deal with are terrific, work hard and do really good work.  It is not universal.”

O’Donnell then confronted Maude for saying that ministers in this and previous government have too often found that decisions they have made don’t get implemented. Is that the fault of ministers or civil servants, asked O’Donnell.

“I’d be astonished if it’s ministers,” said Maude who added,

“ I had a meeting the other day around this table …  where a decision was made by a cabinet committee, more than a year ago, on the centralising of procurement. It had happened to a very minimal extent.

“If there is a problem with it, that can be flagged up and tell us. Just to go away and not do it is unacceptable … it is protection of the system. This is the speaking truth unto power thing. What is unacceptable is not to challenge a ministerial position but then not to implement it. That is what corrodes trust in the system.”

About £230bn a year – nearly a third of everything government spends – is on public sector procurement.  In 2010, Nigel Smith, then CEO of the Office of Government Commerce, spoke to the “Smartgov” conference about the need for major reform in the way government buys things.

He spoke of the need for re-useable software, open source if possible, and said that suppliers regularly use fragmentation within government to maximise profits. “This has got to change,” says Smith.

He said there were 44,000 buying organisations in the public sector which buy “roughly the same things, or similar things, in basic commodity categories” such as IT and office supplies.

Massive duplication

He spoke of “massive duplication”, high tendering costs on suppliers, and a loss of value due to a lack of true aggregation. He said suppliers had little forward look of opportunities to tender and offer innovative solutions for required outcomes.

“Contract management with supplier relationship management is inconsistent, with too little attention paid to continuous improvement and benefits capture within contract.

“The opportunity to improve outcomes and efficiency gains should not be constrained by contract terms and innovations should not stop at the point of contract signature.

“If we miss this opportunity [to reform] we need shooting.”

So it is clear procurement [and much else] needs reforming. But in the R4 broadcast last week (which unfortunately is no longer available) O’Donnell portrays a civil service that is almost as good as it gets.

He speaks of its permanence in contrast to transient ministers. His broadcast attacks the US system of government in which public service leaders change every time there is a new government.  The suggestion is that the US system is like a ship that veers crazily from side to side, as one set of idealogues take the captain’s wheel from another. O’Donnell implies that in the UK civil service stability lasts for decades, even centuries.

The virtues he most admires in the UK civil service are what he calls the 4 “Ps” – Pace, Passion, Professionalism and Pride.  His broadcast speaks of the UK civil service as a responsible, effective, continual and reliable form of administration.  

Comment

O’Donnell’s most striking criticism of Maude’s intended reforms of central government goes to the heart of what Maude is trying to do: change what is happening in departments.

When, in the broadcast, Maude suggested that civil servants were not challenging ministerial decisions and were not implementing them either, O’Donnell replied that Maude was “overstating the issue”. But O’Donnell went much further and added a comment that implied Maude should leave departments alone.

O’Donnell said

“These sorts of problems mainly arise when ministers at the centre of government want to impose their will on secretaries of state who want to be left alone to run their departments as they see fit.”

Is O’Donnell giving permanent secretaries and departmental ministers his support if they continue to snub Cabinet Office reforms?

It is hardly surprising Maude is a bundle of frustrations. Central government administration cannot be reformed if departments have the autonomy to refuse to implement decisions of a cabinet committee.

It is ironic that cabinet committee decisions are binding on the entire Cabinet – but not, it seems, on departments.

Perhaps the gap between political and civil service leaders at the centre, and senior civil servants in departments, is as irreconcilable as ever. Today’s UK civil service is more than ever “Yes Minister” without the jokes.  Should this be the dysfunctional basis for coalition reforms of central government?

Perhaps this explains why Maude is trying to implement open standards, make government procurement friendly to SMEs and encourage the use of G-Cloud while the Department for Work and Pensions and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are  agreeing new mega-contracts,  with the same handful of monolithic suppliers.

Sir Jeremy Heywood, the current Cabinet Secretary,  is perhaps a little more Maude-friendly than O’Donnell when he says in the R4 broadcast,

“There are lots of things we need to do better. Too many projects that we undertake are delayed, are over budget and don’t deliver on all the benefits that were promised. We are not as digital as the most effective private sector organisations are. We have been slow to embrace the digital revolution.”

Fine words. But if a cabinet committee’s decision on centralising procurement has little effect, how is Sir Jeremy going to convert his words into action? Or Francis Maude’s?

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.

Cornwall Council votes for more time to consider outsourcing plans

By Tony Collins

Councillors in Cornwall voted unanimously today (23 October 2012) for a joint venture with BT to be considered more carefully, and for other options to be investigated, without any pressure to finalise a deal by the end of next month, which was the original intention.

The motion passed by the council was that the “current proposals for shared services shall not progress to the ‘invitation to submit final tenders’ stage until they have been debated and unless approved by a meeting of full council”.

The motion called on the Chief Executive [Kevin Lavery] to “investigate fully and as a matter of urgency all reasonable methods of delivering council services covered by the proposals for the strategic partnership which addresses the need to make efficiency savings and generate income”.

Councillors expect Lavery to investigate a “thin” joint venture in which the council and a partner share ownership of a new company.  There would be no early, large scale transfer of Cornwall Council staff into the company.  Cornwall Council would continue to receive its shared services internally. As the joint venture company won new work  – if it did – staff would transfer into it.

Councillors also want Lavery to investigate an in-house option and forming a mutual, which would win the support of central government.

BT, meanwhile, has said it will keep its offer to the council open until the end of its financial year in March.  Jim Currie, Cornwall’s leader, has taken over responsibility for leading the shared services discussions. He says he wants more and better information on the proposals. Most of the information has so far come from BT which has “guaranteed” to save the council money, increase investment, transform services and add at least 500 jobs. In BT’s small print it points out that its commitments to the council are “draft” or, at this stage, “non-binding”.

At the full council meeting this morning one councillor called for an investigation into whether proceeding with one supplier BT – CSC having withdrawn from the bidding in part because of a “confused” political situation in Cornwall – would meet EC tendering rules.

Councillors have set no deadline on when they will come to a decision on the BT proposals or on other options.

Fujitsu banned from Whitehall contracts?

By Tony Collins

The FT reports today that Fujitsu has been deemed for the time being too high risk to take on new public sector deals, along with another unnamed IT services contractor.

The newspaper quotes “people close to the situation”.

It’s likely the article is correct in naming Fujitsu as a supplier that is deemed by the Cabinet Office to be high risk. It is unclear, though, whether being categorised as “high risk” by the Cabinet Office amounts to a ban for the time being on future government contracts.

The FT says that Fujitsu has “in essence” been blacklisted.  “The Cabinet Office refused to confirm the identities of either of the companies that have in effect been blacklisted,” says the FT.

It is also unclear whether the Cabinet Office could exclude a supplier from shortlists even if it wanted to. The Cabinet Office awards few large IT contracts of its own; contracts are awarded by departments, and the Cabinet Office has no unambiguous power to exclude particular suppliers from shortlists drawn up by autonomous departments that take their own decisions on which companies to award contracts to.

Mega-contracts to be awarded by central departments must, however, must go to the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority for approval.  The Authority could in theory require that Fujitsu be excluded from a shortlist before it gives approval.  This blacklisting would require Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, and the minister signing the mega-contract to be in agreement.

If a departmental minister refused to exclude  a supplier from a bid or shortlist because of its past performance what could the Cabinet Office do, especially if the minister argued that the supplier’s continued work , in the form of a renewed contract, was not just desirable but essential?

The FT says that the latest initiative to ban companies with troubled histories in government from new contracts is being spearheaded by Bill Crothers, formerly of Accenture.

He was appointed as chief procurement officer two months ago to inject private sector rigour into Whitehall’s contracting system. He is quoted in the FT as saying that his new approach would allow past performance to be taken into account for the first time when a company is bidding for a fresh tender.

Comment

The idea of a blacklist is a good one; indeed it would be the most important innovation in government IT since the general election. For decades MPs and others have said that under-performing suppliers should not be awarded new contracts. Now at last that may be happening.

After Fujitsu sued the Department for Health for about £700m over the NPfIT a settlement has been elusive, despite the intervention of the Cabinet Office. It is likely that Fujitsu UK’s hands will have been controlled by its parent in Japan.

Fujitsu’s performance on the “Libra” contract for IT in magistrates’ courts was strongly criticised by MPs and the National Audit Office which exposed repeated threats by the supplier to withdraw from the contract unless its terms were met.

Fujitsu could circumvent any blacklisting by becoming a subcontractor on a mega-contract, as it is at HMRC on the “ASPIRE” contract and at the DWP where its hardware runs benefit systems. Or a department could ignore the Cabinet Office and award non mega-contracts to Fujitsu.

We hope the Cabinet Office finds a way to make its blacklist – if that is what it is – stick. A  private sector company would not award a new contract to a supplier that had bitten in the past. Why would the public sector?

How to identify a high-risk supplier – Cabinet Office works out details

By Tony Collins

Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, has agreed mechanisms for officials to identify high-risk suppliers where “material and substantial underperformance is evident”.

On his blog Spend Matters, Peter Smith has published parts of a letter from Maude.

Where under-performing suppliers are identified “departments will be asked to engage with the Cabinet Office at each stage of any procurement process involving the affected supplier to ensure that performance concerns are taken fully into account before proceeding”.

The implication is that the Cabinet Office will draw up a blacklist of bad suppliers which departments will take account of when buying. Smith says that two suppliers are already on the blacklist.

Comment: 

For more than 20 years the trade press has identified the same suppliers in a succession of failed or failing IT-based projects but poor performance has never been taken seriously into account.

This is usually because the suppliers argue that the media and/or Parliament has got it all wrong.  Departments, it appears, will always prefer a potential supplier’s version to whatever is said in the media or in Parliament.

The Office of Government Commerce, now part of the Cabinet Office, kept intelligence information on suppliers but it seems to have made no difference in procurements.

It is unlikely the Cabinet Office’s blacklist will rule out any suppliers from a shortlist. As Smith says, suppliers will claim that any problem was all the fault of ministers or civil servants who kept changing their minds, were not around to make key decisions, or didn’t understand the nature of the work.

But still the blacklist is a worthwhile innovation. At least one big IT supplier has made a habit of threatening to withdraw from existing assignments when officials have refused to revise terms, prices or length of contract. The blacklist will strengthen the negotiating hand of officials.

The challenge for Maude will be persuading departments to take the blacklist idea seriously.

Peter Smith, Spend Matters.

School report on Govt ICT Strategy – a good start

By Tony Collins

In a review of progress on the Government’s ICT Strategy after six months, the National Audit Office says that the Cabinet Office has made a “positive and productive start to implementing the Strategy”.

The NAO says that at least 70 people from the public sector have worked on the Strategy in the first six months though the public sector will need “at least another 84 people to deliver projects in the Plan”.

The UK Government’s ICT Strategy is more ambitious than the strategies in the US, Australia, Netherlands and Denmark, because it sets out three main aims:

– reducing waste and project failure

– building a common ICT infrastructure

– using ICT to enable and deliver change

The US Government’s ICT Strategy, in contrast, encompasses plans for a common infrastructure only – and these plans have not produced the expected savings, says the NAO.

In a paragraph that may be little noticed in the report, the NAO says that senior managers in central government have plans to award new ICT contracts (perhaps along the pre-coalition lines) in case the common solutions developed for the ICT Strategy are “not available in time”.

The NAO report also says that “suppliers were cautious about investing in new products and services because of government’s poor progress in implementing previous strategies”.

Of 17 actions in the Strategy that were due by September 2011, seven were delivered on time. Work on most of the other actions is underway and a “small number” are still behind schedule says the NAO.

The NAO calls on government to “broaden the focus to driving business change”.

Some successes of the UK’s ICT Strategy as identified by the NAO:

* The Cabinet Office has set up a small CIO Delivery Board led by the Government CIO Joe Harley to implement the ICT Strategy. The Board’s members include the Corporate IT Director at the DWP, CIOs at the Home Office, MoD, HMRC, Ministry of Justice and Department for Health, together with key officials at the Cabinet Office. The departmental CIOs on the Board are responsible directly to Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, for implementing the ICT Strategy in their departments and are accountable to their own minister. No conflicts have arisen

* Senior managers in central government and the ICT industry are willing to align their strategies for ICT with new cross-government solutions and standards but need more detail.

*  Some suppliers have offered help to government to develop its thinking and help accelerate the pace of change in ICT in government.

* The Cabinet Office intended that delivering the Strategy would be resourced from existing budgets. Staff have been redirected from other tasks to work on implementing the Strategy. “We have found collaborative working across departmental boundaries. For example HMRC and the MoD have combined resources to develop a strategy for greener ICT. Teams producing the strategies for cloud computing and common desktops and mobile devices have worked together to reduce the risk of overlap and gaps.

* The BBC has shown the way in managing dozens of suppliers rather than relying on one big company. For BBC’s digital media initiative, the Corporation manages 47 separate suppliers, says the NAO.

* The Cabinet Office intends that departments will buy components of ICT infrastructure from a range of suppliers rather than signing a small number of long-term contracts; and to make sure different systems share data the Cabinet Office is agreeing a set of open technical standards.

* Some of the larger departments have already started to consolidate data centres, though the NAO said that the programme as a whole is moving slowly and no robust business case is yet in place.

* The Cabinet Office is starting to involve SMEs. It has established a baseline of current procurement spending with SMEs – 6.5% of total government spend – and hopes that the amount of work awarded to SMEs will increase to 25%. Government has started talking “directly to SMEs”, says the NAO.

Some problems identified in the NAO report:

* Cloud computing and agile skills are lacking. “Government also lacks key business skills. Although it has ouitsourced ICT systems development and services for many years, our reports have often stated that government is not good at managing commercial relationships and contracts or procurement.”

* Suppliers doubt real change will happen. The NAO says that suppliers doubted whether “government had the appropriate skills to move from using one major supplier to deliver ICT solutions and services, to managing many suppliers of different sizes providing different services”.

* The Government CIO Joe Harley, who promoted collaboration, is leaving in early 2012, as is his deputy Bill McCluggage. The NAO suggests their departures may “adversely affect” new ways of working.

* The NAO interviewed people from departments, agencies and ICT suppliers whose concern was that “short-term financial pressure conflicted with the need for the longer-term reform of public services”.

* The culture change required to implement the Strategy “may be a significant barrier”.

* The Cabinet Office acknowledges that the government does not have a definitive record of ICT spend in central government (which would make it difficult to have a baseline against which cuts could be shown).

* The Cabinet Office has not yet defined how reform and improved efficiency in public services will be measured across central government, as business outcomes against an agreed baseline.

**

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said today: ” ICT is going to play an increasingly important role in changing how government works and how services are provided.

“The Government’s ICT Strategy is in its early days and initial signs are good. However, new ways of working are as dependent on developing the skills of people in the public sector as they are on changes to technology and processes; the big challenge is to ensure that the Strategy delivers value in each of these areas.”

NAO report:  Implementing the Government ICT Strategy: six-month review of progress.