House of Commons publishes its Report on Government IT

The House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) has today published its report on Government and IT (PDF).

I had the privilege of working for the Committee as their Specialist Adviser for this inquiry. I hope the report will help bring about the beneficial outcomes I know many people desire – across Parliament (and all political parties and affiliations), the Government, Whitehall and the wider public sector, the supplier base, the media and, of course, for the general public whose essential public services lie at the very heart of this issue.

The report argues that the Government needs to take action in four primary areas in order to use IT more effectively in the design and operation of the UK’s public services:

  • Improve the information it holds on IT expenditure, without which the Government is unable to secure the best possible price for goods and services.
  • Publish more information about IT projects. The committee argues that the Government should make public information about how much its IT costs, and how its systems run. This would allow external experts to challenge current practices and identify ways services could be delivered differently as well as more economically.
  • Widen the supplier base by reducing the size of its contracts and greatly simplifying the procurement process to engage with innovative Small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Most importantly, departments need the capacity to deal directly with a wider range of suppliers, especially SMEs.
  • Work in a more “agile” manner. The Government needs to move towards the use of more iterative development methods which enable IT programmes to adapt to ever changing challenges.

However, I would suggest that rather than just walk away with these top-line items that the whole report is worthy of a read from front to back. And indeed the written and oral evidence (PDF), and additional written evidence (PDF), available online. The inquiry covered a wide range of evidence and the report makes a series of broader, interdependent recommendations – all of which need to be properly co-ordinated and managed if the desired improvements are to be achieved.

The report currently appears to be receiving a wide range of coverage, from the BBC and Sky to the Guardian,  Mirror, FT, through to Computer Weekly, ComputerWorldUK and numerous bloggers (such as the well-respected Tony Collins) and tweeters.

The importance to me lies less in the historic critique of what has failed – which has been covered various times before – and more in the Committee’s positive recommendations for change and improvement. The real test now will be to see how quickly and effectively its recommendations can be reviewed and, I hope, implemented – in order for all of us to benefit from the highly valuable role that I believe well-managed, policy-integrated IT can play in the design and operation of our public services.

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4 comments

  1. Jerry, I’ve been following much (but not all) of the evidence submissions as they have come up and caught the highlights of the report today… So, prior to a more leisurely read through the whole (and there is a lot!) and to cut to the chase, can you point us to anything that is (i) really new/ insightful that has been uncovered by this work or (ii) that can now be concluded on the basis of the new evidence recently presented? While I share your hope that “the report will help bring about the beneficial outcomes”, I’m also really really hoping to find some ‘We came. We saw. We conquered.’ and not yet more variations on the theme of ‘We came. We saw. We left. Next!?’.

    1. Hi Andy, as you imply the topic area is in many ways well-trodden ground. And governments of various persuasions have all sought to reform the role of IT in the design and delivery of our public services – and have struggled with the same “fault line” between policy aspiration and its effective implementation on the ground. The commentary here provides a recap of other recent work in this area, and some of the key issues in the report, and much of the past 15 years of attempts at reform are narrated here.

      There are numerous key elements for me to this report, including the way the Committee methodically accumulated both written and oral evidence throughout their open inquiry process. And what I characterise as two primary dimensions in the final report. First, the evidence, analysis, conclusions and recommendations as to what has gone wrong in the past and how this needs to be fixed. Second, how work that shows more promising approaches and outcomes needs to be accelerated and taken mainstream to help consolidate success, reinforce a change in behaviours (and hence culture), reward those at the vanguard of change for “doing the right thing”, and expedite the overall direction of travel.

      Some of this inquiry I believe is both more detailed and more analytical than previous work (although to understand the full level of detail you should read through the oral and written evidence provided, not just the selection in the main body of the report itself). The comparative analysis, for example, of the stated policy of procuring open standards set against the reality of OGC procurement notices specifying proprietary solutions is but one example. Another is the apparent contradiction between a policy to open up more direct contracting and procurement with SMEs set against a drive to consolidate SMEs as secondary contractors behind large suppliers through just one or two contracting vehicles – what the Committee identify as a confusion of the aggregation of needs with the aggregation of supply. More broadly, I’d characterise this as a gap, or even a conflict, between policy intent and the operational means put into practice on the ground to deliver the desired outcome. Ensuring the operational model delivers the desired policy outcome is going to be fundamental to fixing that historic “fault line”, and this underlines concerns the Committee raise about whether government has the correct skills and experience in all the right places to drive the necessary changes in the right way.

      More difficult to comment on here is some of the detailed private evidence provided – something that led PASC to make the strong recommendation it does, namely:

      “The Government should urgently commission an independent, external investigation to determine whether there is substance to these serious allegations of anti-competitive behaviour and collusion. The Government should also provide a trusted and independent escalation route to enable SMEs confidentially to raise allegations of malpractice.”

      Another distinct area for me was the Committee’s work on analysing and understanding the differences between “margins” on work and the overall price that government is paying for goods and services compared with other comparable goods and services elsewhere. This distinguishes the efficiency and effectiveness of the current overall system from the more narrow topic often discussed of whether specific companies might be making inappropriate margins or profits. Some of the detailed figures obtained in confidence gave rise to the conclusion that government was paying “between 7 to 10 times more than their standard commercial costs” in at least some important areas. In turn this led to the recommendation that:

      The poor benchmarking of central government’s IT expenditure is unacceptable. Without this information it will not be possible for the Government to advance effectively its cost reduction agenda. We recommend that the Government should investigate the claims of overcharging put to us and seek to identify reliable and comparable cost benchmarks, and collect accurate information from departments in order to compare with those benchmarks. Where possible bespoke projects should also be benchmarked, and the Government should trial ways of conducting benchmarking exercises for its more complex projects. The Government should use independent and specialist advisers and the NAO to assist with identifying objective benchmarking measurements.

      And more specifically:

      Making data about expenditure available is not only a good discipline for departments; it also allows the Government to harness independent views on how to deliver services more cost effectively. The Government should publish in full all contracts. It should publish as much information as possible about how it runs its IT to enable effective benchmarking and to allow external experts to suggest different and more economical and effective ways of running its systems. Feedback it receives based on this information should be used to challenge and hold to account current providers, and to renegotiate, disaggregate and re-compete existing contracts where it becomes clear that more cost effective delivery mechanisms are available.

      I remain, as ever, an optimist – and see a mix of elements in play that should help drive the overall changes required: including a healthy mix of cross-party determination, the economic environment and a great enthusiasm amongst key Ministers, MPs, officials and innovative suppliers to really make a difference. As to what happens in reality, in terms of addressing the historic “fault line” between policy intent and actual implementation? That, of course, remains to be seen. But like many others, I hope for the best. And if the Committee’s recommendations are acted upon, I believe they will provide a good starting basis for sustained, successful change.

      1. Jerry, Thanks for the summary and pointers. I was particularly struck by the strong statements around benchmarking… and forcefully reminded of one of the great weaknesses of the e-GIF compliance regime, namely that there was NO initial state benchmarking and NO benchmarking of progress towards the programme goals. Repeated attempts by us (at the NCC) (and maybe others?) to get the Office of the e-Envoy then the e-Government Unit then Transformational Government to get benchmarking built in and operating as a systemic driver for change within the ‘World of e-GIF’. Maybe the Efficiency and Reform Group will be more energetic than its predecessors this time around? We’ll see.
        A radical thought… Maybe, given the £ billions revenues/costs at stake on the suppliers/ buyers sides, NEITHER SIDE can be the trusted policeman of the system… The alternative is an independent ‘regulator’ to ensure ‘fairness’ happens, protecting the different interests of the poor taxpayers and distracted public service consumers who seem to get left out of so often yet who ‘pay’ for all this in one way or another (not just financially)… Like an OffCom or OffWat?… How about an ‘Office for public service IT benchmarking’ (OffIT)… Or perhaps a branch of the NAO working for/ reporting to the PASC…. Hmmm, not sure the OffIT acronym is a good one, but I like the idea of the policeman not being one of the two VERY vested interests… Give OffIT a budget of only 1/1000 of the £10 billion spending and they’d have £10 million a year in Year 1…

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