Category Archives: innovation

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.

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Why isn’t Universal Credit IT a disaster yet?

By Tony Collins

voltaireVoltaire said those who walk well-trodden paths tend to throw stones at those who show a new road. 

Iain Duncan Smith has had nothing but criticism in the media for his extreme caution over the go-live yesterday of the innovative Universal Credit scheme. But he told Radio 4’s Today presenter Justin Webb he was learning from the NHS IT scheme and the implementation of tax credits.

[With the NPfIT the Department of Health threw caution to the wind and spent billions on IT work and contracts that were unnecessary. After working tax credits went live the Office of National Statistics estimated that, of the £13.5bn paid out in tax credits in 2004, £1.9bn was in overpayments; and IT-related problems led to delays in issuing payments, which caused hardship for those on low incomes.]

Iain_Duncan_Smith,_June_2007IDS said on R4 Today yesterday:

“What I have introduced here is a deliberate and slower process introduction because I learned from the chaos of tax credits where it collapsed and the chaos of the health department’s changes to their IT systems. I want to do this carefully to make sure we get it right.”

Justin Webb: But your critics say you are not testing the things that could go wrong – children and homeless people are not involved.  When are you going to involve them in a pilot?

IDS: They are all going to be involved as we roll out.

Webb: There will be a pilot that includes those more difficult groups?

IDS: These pilots are to test two things; first of all that the base process works and secondly that all the other issues …

Webb: No homeless people involved in that. The difficult people are not involved?

IDS: What we are doing is testing the basic process. As we roll out from October onwards we then complicate the process and we roll it out in such a way as we are able to bring those people in and ensure that we also test them as we are going through. It’s a perpetual process of rolling out and checking, rolling out and checking. That is the better way to do it. I have done this in the private sector and Lord Freud [work and pensions minister] did this in the banking sector. We have insisted on it because this is the right way to do it. Get it right. Not get it early.

Can IDS be too cautious?

Universal Credit is live on GOV.UK.  To claim it now you need to live in an OL6, OL7, M43 or SK16 postcode, have just become unemployed, fit for work, have no children, not be claiming disability benefits, not have any caring responsibilities, not be homeless or living in temporary accommodation, and have a valid bank account and national insurance number.

But still it’s a test of links between UC  and HMRC’s RTI systems. If the links are working properly the systems should verify that the new UC claimant has recently left PAYE employment. The pilot in Ashton is also a test of the UC payment system and whether the new scheme will encourage claimants to find a job and stay in work longer.

On Sunday, on BBC Radio 5’s Double Take, I praised the Department of Work and Pensions for an ultra-cautious approach in going live with UC.

But IT consultant Brian Wernham, author of Agile Project Management for Government, pointed out to BBC’s World This Weekend that thousands of people will need to claim UC every day from the official start of the scheme in October 2013 to the end of 2017 if the DWP is to complete its UC roll-out within the coalition’s promised schedule.

Yet the limited pilot in Ashton has restricted claimants to about 300 a month. At this rate the roll-out to more than eight million claimants will not be anywhere near complete by the end of 2017.

Comment

The Financial Times quotes Iain Duncan Smith as saying that one million claimants would be receiving universal credit by the end of April 2014.

This is now unlikely if not impossible. Even in October when the UC roll-out begins nationally, it will start with simple cases. By April 2014 it is hard to see that there will be 100,000 people claiming UC, let alone one million. Indeed the most complex cases may be handled outside of the main UC system, possibly manually or on a spreadsheet.

Why should the coalition care if the 2017 deadline is not met? A general election on 7 May 2015 means that UC will become the responsibility of a new government. IDS is then unlikely to be the DWP’s secretary of state. He could argue at that time that he should not be held responsible for any delays in the roll-out. Indeed the Tories could be out of government by then.

So what the coalition says now about UC’s future means little or nothing.

That said, the coalition seems to be learning lessons from past IT-related failures. It deserves praise for its extreme caution over the introduction of UC.

It is not doing everything right: the DWP is refusing to publish any of its expensive consultancy reports on the progress of the UC IT systems. Partly that is because of DWP culture and because shadow ministers are waiting to jump on any putative weakness in the UC scheme. Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne said on yesterday’s Today programme that universal credit was “a fine idea that builds on Labour’s tax credits revolution”.

liam byrneHe added: “The truth is the scheme is late, over budget, the IT system appears to be falling apart and even DWP [Department of Work and Pensions] ministers admit they haven’t got a clue what is going on.”

But when Byrne was in government he was an unswerving advocate of the disastrous NPfIT. So can his criticism of the UC project be trusted now?

Despite a generally negative media there are no signs yet that UC is a disaster in the making.  Indeed RTI is working so far, which was the biggest single risk.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude is said to remain concerned that UC could prove an electoral disaster, and his concern is good for the UC IT project. It means the coalition will continue to roll out UC with extreme caution.

Such a play-it-safe approach might never have occurred before on a major government IT project. So does it matter that UC  takes years to roll out?

Perhaps the roll-out may continue well beyond 2017 but it’s better to complete a simplification of the benefits system over an extended time than pay claimants the wrong amounts or leave the vulnerable without payment altogether.  

Teething troubles on day one of Universal Credit scheme – Guardian

Could HMRC have a major success on its hands? – RTIis working

The vultures circle over Universal Credit IT.

DWP hides the facts on UC IT progress.

Are civil servants misleading IDS over Universal Credit IT progress?

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.

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

Lessons from a government agile success

By Tony Collins

Some central government departments spend a great deal with large suppliers on the development and maintenance of their websites (more on this in a separate post).  They could save millions of pounds if they followed the example of the Government Digital Service (and were not locked into mega-outsourcing contracts that include website development).

Agile teams within the GDS are responsible for GOV.UK, which largely replaces Directgov and offers a one-stop site for government services and information.

Simple, clear, fast

The guiding principles for GDS’s agile teams were “simple, clear, fast”. Lessons from the open-source project are on the GDS website. These are some of them:

“When things get tough and you want to go back to old ways, go more agile, not less”.

Less is more (a rare attribute for a government IT project).

Use independently-verifiable data to track your programme

Agile can work at scale. “We’ve embraced it culturally and organisationally…”

The Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said:

“In stark contrast to the way IT has been delivered in government in the past, GOV.UK can rapidly accommodate new standards for development and security, catering to emerging technologies and user requirements quickly and effectively. It has been built the way Amazon built Amazon, and in the way that BA transformed their online business, by being agile, iterative and focused on users.

“GOV.UK has also been built using open source technology, which means we don’t have to pay expensive software licensing costs.”

Comment:

A good result for the Government Digital Service. Will others in central government follow?

What we’ve learnt about scaling agile – Government Digital Service

Agile can fix failed GovIT says lawyer

 

Campaign for electronic patient information centre

By Tony Collins

Shane Tickell, CEO of health IT supplier IMS Maxims, is leading a campaign for a national electronic patient information centre.

It would enable NHS staff, healthcare organisations and government suppliers to share details of, or learn about, innovative practices that work.

In a guest blog, Tickell argues that there are many examples of innovation in the NHS but information on the successes is scarce or not available in one place.

He advocates a physical and a virtual centre. Information, case studies, best practice and ideas from the NHS would be shared online. There are some websites that do this, but in isolation. The virtual site he proposes would be interactive and a way of collating information that exists in silos.

The physical centre, Tickell says, could be anywhere on the UK, potentially using some of the 2,000 acres of unused NHS estate. It would be a forum for education and sharing, where suppliers could showcase their systems, and NHS staff could speak openly about what they need from suppliers.

It would also be a place for policy to be explained by government officials, where quangos define their requirements, and NHS trusts share what they are doing and the lessons they have learned.

Shane Tickell writes:

“As an acceptance grows across the NHS that there is a crucial need for integration across health and social care, the extent to which our National Health Service is disjointed is becoming increasingly clear.

In many areas, although of course not all, there are so many examples of different approaches, poor collaboration and lack of joined thinking between organisations despite their attempts to achieve the same goals. On many occasions, I’ve seen examples where an NHS organisation has shared the results of a successful pilot with another organisation hundreds of miles away and yet the trust just a few miles down the road has no idea the initiative even exists.

In recent years, healthcare IT events such as EHI Live have helped suppliers of all sizes showcase their solutions, albeit just once a year.

However, despite best efforts, most often suppliers with the biggest marketing budgets often take the centre stage, while the smaller, more innovative companies huddle around the edges trying to grab the attention of the odd delegate who is less wowed by the exciting gizmos and freebies on the bigger stands.

Equally, these events have been valuable in enabling the NHS to share their experiences by allowing them to participate in best practice showcases. But while these shows are valuable in providing those once-a-year opportunities to network and see what is available, ideas and information gathered can soon be forgotten once back in the busy NHS setting, until the next time an event comes around.

There are more than 400 pilots across the NHS and 300 ‘examples of innovation’ alone, according to the BCS. On top of all of that, my team recently mapped more than 40 NHS organisations and bodies, who work virtually disparately to attempt to provide the NHS with direction, standards and protocols.

So where does this leave the NHS – confused? Disjointed? Not a clue where to start when they are told that they need to collaborate and innovate to improve patient safety and care while saving vast sums of money?

The NHS needs a place that provides an educational and innovation forum covering everything related to electronic health and wellbeing that is available all year round – an electronic patient information centre.

At present there are pockets of innovation across the country. Initiatives set up by the National Innovation Centre and its associated ‘innovation hubs’ are providing a useful mechanism to support and adopt healthcare technology across the regions.

But an all year round centre would provide a central location for healthcare organisations, bodies, government and suppliers to meet, discuss and understand policy. Equally important, the centre would provide a valuable place to educate on future challenges and where they are being driven from and an opportunity to work together to help to address them as soon as they start to emerge.

Although it would require investment, such a centre would provide trusts, CCGs, private and independent organisations and just about anyone with an interest in health and social care regardless of their budget, size, location or IT savviness with the opportunity to attend at a time that is convenient for them.

Meanwhile, suppliers of any shape or size would have a level playing field from which to be represented and educate their current and potential customers, rather than trawling up and down the country trying to find inroads to speak to those on the frontline. In addition, it would ensure that all is not lost from the National Programme for IT and that lessons learned are shared.

For too long the NHS has had to rely on word of mouth and second-guessing how surrounding organisations are achieving success. Now is the time to really work together to ensure true innovation is shared and for everyone to have a chance to be part of it.”

LinkedIn group – Electronic Patient Information Centre 

shane.tickell@imsmaxims.com.

Fujitsu on blacklist? Cabinet Office issues statement

By Tony Collins

The Cabinet Office has denied it is operating a blacklist of poorly-performing suppliers – but says that suppliers deemed high risk may find it “more difficult to secure new work with HMG”.

In its statements to Kable’s Government Computing, the Cabinet Office also made it clear that suppliers deemed high risk can redeem themselves.

“Mechanisms exist to remove suppliers from the High Risk classification when performance improves dramatically.”

This suggests that Fujitsu would no longer be deemed high risk if it settled its dispute with the government over the NPfIT. Fujitsu has been seeking £700m after the failure of its NPfIT contract. A settlement has proved elusive and the case may go to court.

The FT said on Tuesday that Fujitsu has “in essence” been blacklisted. Neither Fujitsu nor the Cabinet Office are denying that Fujitsu has been put in the high-risk classification.

A Cabinet Office spokesman told Government Computing:

“We cannot comment on the status of individual suppliers, but we are absolutely clear that this Government will not tolerate poor supplier performance.

“We want to strengthen our contract management by reporting on suppliers’ performance against criteria and sharing the information across Government. This means that information on a supplier’s performance will be available and taken into consideration at the start of and during the procurement process (pre-contract). Suppliers with poor performance may therefore find it more difficult to secure new work with HMG.

“This policy will include the identification of any high-risk suppliers so that performance issues are properly taken into account before any new contracts are given.

“High-risk classification is based on material performance concerns. Suppliers deemed high risk will be subject to particularly close scrutiny when awarding new work.

“Overall, this is simply good commercial practice and in line with how we are improving the way government does business and emulating the best of the private sector.”

The spokesman said that contract extensions are within scope of the poor-performance policy but will be tackled in a proportional way – depending on the overall cost of the contract, the relative cost of extending it, and how critical the extension is.

The high-risk classification “applies to strategic suppliers who do business across Government, and is not limited to any specific sector”. Frameworks are also included.

“Our performance policy will apply to central government departments, where we have direct control of spending,” said the spokesman. But it is still unclear what direct control the Cabinet Office has of departmental spending.

That said, the Cabinet Office announced in June spending controls on central government that “allow government to act strategically in a way it never could before”. It added that there were “strict controls on ICT expenditure”.

That means that large ICT contracts to be awarded by departments must go to the Cabinet Office for approval; and the Cabinet Office has introduced a single point of contact for major suppliers, which means that the performance of strategic suppliers will be viewed in the round.

In the past suppliers have been able to tell departments that were about to award contracts that rumours of alleged poor performance in other departments were incorrect.

Comment

While not a blacklist the high-risk classification seems a good idea. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, is sending a message to suppliers that if they take legal action against a department it could stop them getting business across Whitehall.

But he’s also saying in effect: settle and we’ll remove you from the high-risk list.

Is there a danger that the power could swing too much in the government’s favour, allowing departments to poorly manage contracts with impunity? Probably not. Suppliers will have to take the high-risk list into account when signing deals.

They know that, in the insurance industry for example, if they mess up one contract word will soon get around.

Poorly-performing suppliers risk being frozen out of Government business – Government Computing

Fujitsu banned from goovernment contracts?

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.

The US approach to increasing innovation in government

By David Bicknell

I liked a recent blog written in the US by a ‘federal coach’ – I guess they could only get away with that title in the US!- about US government efforts to increase innovation in departments.

The piece makes the point that the White House recently launched an innovation scheme grandly titled the Presidential Innovation Fellows program that will bring in 15 ‘innovators’ from outside government to provide expertise on five technology projects.  

According to the article, within 24 hours of the announcement, more than 600 people had applied to go to Washington for at least six months to work with federal employees on projects aimed at making government more effective and more accountable.

The projects, which will be led by Chief Technology Officer Todd Park and Government Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel, include creating an electronic payment system for government transactions involving foreign aid and U.S. operations overseas; and streamlining an online system for citizens in need of federal services.

It sounds impressive. The “Presidential Innovation Fellows program is based in part on the Entrepreneurs-in-Residence  programme that allows agencies to recruit world-class, private-sector innovators for limited periods of time and pair them with public-sector innovators to solve big problems.”

For the US, its scheme of government and the strength of its technology sector, it will probably work. Could such a programme work here? What would be the equivalent of a Presidential Innovation Fellows programme? And how many offers of help would it achieve within 24 hours of its launch?

Cash-strapped council IT teams to get backing for innovation projects

By David Bicknell

IT teams in cash-strapped councils are being given a helping hand to drive new IT projects where teams believe technology innovation could drive positive change in local communities.

It follows the launch of a Future Fund created by mobile telecomms company O2 to help forward-thinking councils get to grips with new methods of engaging their staff, citizens and communities.

Successful local authorities applying for the scheme will be awarded access to O2 consultancy time, services and technology to help them turn their project ideas into reality.

The Future Fund open for applications on 25th April with three grant funding packages available to the value of £125,000, £75,000 and £50,000.

60 councils attended the launch event with the scheme focused on authorities developing ideas and services against three broad themes: reducing cost and improving efficiencies; finding new ways of engaging with citizens; and empowering the community to do more for itself.

Each of the topics points to more effective service delivery, by empowering staff or by expanding the concept of ‘self-service’.

To support the Fund’s launch, O2 plans to showcase 17 different parts of its business, each with their own unique slant on the digital age, from established technologies such as wi-fi to ‘people’ skills, social media expertise, mobile advertising and location-based services, as well as business engagement and apps development. Councils will be able to pick which selection of services to use to build their idea and weave into their bid.

O2 says it has created the Future Fund through its Local Government Futures Forum, which aims to understand what the role of IT should be in modernising councils in challenging times.

It argues that as technology advances at a rapid pace, with people creating and consuming data in more diverse and immediate ways, councils face a challenge to use these channels to demonstrate communications nous and find new ways to engage with their communities.

A recent consultation exercise found that budget cuts across the public sector have resulted in an expected automatic squeeze on resources, with mounting pressure across all departments to operate more efficiently and do more with less. 

With ongoing pressure to reduce spending, council decision-makers are opting for solutions that make an immediate impact – cutting services, and in turn cost – rather than looking at ways of adapting them, with IT departments facing an uphill struggle to retain and control their destinies, often competing for de-centralised budgets across multiple teams with no place or input at a board level.

Ben Dowd, Director of Business at O2 says: “O2 believes that the right application of technology has the potential to drive real change. Our findings through our work with local government IT departments support this belief. What is different is that the Future Fund will give a glimpse of what is possible with a bit of imagination and we will support the winning bids by providing investment in their IT infrastructure coupled with resource and expertise.

“So it is up to the councils to determine how it can be applied to their own council, citizens or community, ultimately giving local government the ability to shape their own destiny in a project they are passionate about.”

Applications for the Fund will be judged by a panel of experts from O2 and independent parties. Councils will then have eight weeks to develop and deliver their ideas, before selection takes place later this year.

www.o2.co.uk/futurefund