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.
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.