Public sector bodies spend around £16 billion on Information Communication Technology (ICT) per annum. The Government want to cut this figure by £3.2 billion. In Government ICT Strategy: Smarter, cheaper, greener they propose replacing the existing private ICT market with a new Government led internal market in ICT services.
The Government will purchase ICT licences. These will be held under Crown warranty in an arrangement ominously entitled The Government Cloud. All public sector bodies including local authorities will be able to purchase what they need from a shopping list of solutions held by Central Government. Local authorities will pay only for what they use. They will be able to adapt the software to meet their needs. All applications will be pre-checked to ensure they meet data security obligations.
The report is good at identifying the problems with existing ICT procurement. These are:
- There are multiple different interfaces in the public sector. 10,000 unique public sector ICT applications and applications contracts exist. Different parts of Government are needlessly purchasing similar software multiple times.
- The creation of multiple bespoke solutions with different and often incompatible software has reduced the ability of public sector bodies to communicate with each other (interoperability).
- The purchase of commercial off the shelf IT applications ties public sector purchasers into long term service contracts. This limits their ability to seek better terms or different providers. It also prevents
them from reusing software or adapting it without permission.
- Public sector officials do not have a good record at procuring IT. Communication Information Technology (CIT) services contracts take between 57 and 77 weeks to procure on average (P44). They are characterised by cost overruns and late delivery.
- Public Services often don’t have sufficient in house ICT expertise. This means they rely on expensive consultants and contractors. The Government wants to reduce this by fifty per cent by 2020 by developing Government ICT staff capacity (P15).
This new ICT strategy is an attempt to solve these difficult problems. But the Government’s ICT strategy is subject to two serious flaws. Firstly, for it to work it relies on Government planners being more intelligent than a private market. Secondly, it believes a big government solution is better than empowering local authorities (the latter option is not even considered). Neither view conforms to the evidence available.
Most Government ICT schemes have ended in failure e.g. the NHS, the Home Office, the RPA etc. Since 1997 the Government has spent almost £100 billion on IT projects. However, Joe Harley Chief Information Officer at the Department for Work and Pensions in 2007 revealed that over 70 per cent of Government IT projects had failed. A more recent report by the Independent revealed that £26 billion had been wasted on computer systems subject to severe delays or cancellations.
Because this problem involves computers the Government believe it requires a technical solution. It does not. We should not be working out how to make the 10,000 public sector applications/application contracts work better. We should be asking is there a need for the thousands of Government bodies which now exist.
The Government’s Total Place Scheme allows local authorities to exercise greater control over public services operating in their area. This is welcome. However, it only operates in thirteen pilot areas. It should be extended. The police, fire and ambulance services and primary care trusts etc all have separate IT platforms. They could be accessed through one county-wide portal if each of these services were run by the local authority.
The Conservatives have labelled the Government’s ICT strategy proposals “unambitious.” They have launched a website “Make IT Better.” They want the public to offer suggestions on how public IT can be improved. However, maybe the Conservatives are also guilty of clouded thinking. Instead of proposing a more consumer friendly Big Government solution maybe they should remember the words of Ronald Reagan that “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”
The views expressed above are my personal views and not those of my employer or any other organisation with which I am associated.