It’s 30 years or more since government first developed IT systems in-house, 20 years since outsourcing became a major trend and 7 years since we should have been 100% online, or digital by default as we now say. Sure we’ve come a long way in each of those periods but, honestly, we haven’t come nearly far enough. #Unacceptable IT is pervasive.
Real progress has been blocked by many things including an absence of capability in both departments and their suppliers, by a strong resistance to change, by the perverse incentives of contracts that mean its cheaper to pay service credits than to fix the problem and by an unwillingness to embrace the potential of newer and smaller players to offer status quo-busting ideas.
CIOs across government, including me in various roles at the centre of government, have been guilty for too long of taking the easy path. We have done the #unacceptable and thought we were doing a great job. We have:
- Signed contracts with single suppliers that have led to both poor service and high costs, because that is the way government did things
- Failed to let in innovative suppliers because of the constraints of those large contracts, because new suppliers, we figured, brought risk and uncertainty
- Designed and delivered solutions that look, in today’s world, ridiculously expensive and over-engineered because we thought that was the right thing to do
- Allowed our users to suffer with IT that is a decade – or more – behind what they are using at home because the security considerations for government are different and stricter from those for everyone else
Those decisions and the paths that they led us to take are no longer valid. There are better ways to deliver government IT than we have so far seen done.
Over the last 18 months, working on G-Cloud as well as the immediate forerunner of the Government Digital Service, I’ve seen the real signs of change:
- The biggest change is that some in the public sector are no longer willing to put up with the poor service and delivery that they’ve experienced; they are actively looking for new ways of working
- IT delivery people, Mike Bracken leading the charge, talk about customer centric and recognise that there isn’t any other way of delivering
- Big departments openly talk about wanting to get away from the traditional model of big, cumbersome IT and are serious
- I hear CIOs talk about not wanting to see promises continually broken and I know that they mean it.
Underpinning this desire for change is the recent switch to almost total transparency – things that were never published before are now routinely published, even before someone asks for them via FoI. Data is being made available by the Open Data initiative. Public Services are being opened up too. If the data is going to be made available anyway, what does “security” mean in the government context? This change in approach is forcing departments to confront what they really need to keep secure – and far from prying eyes - and what they don’t. That, in turn, allows new services to be delivered off-the-shelf and on a pay as you go basis via the G-Cloud framework.
There is still plenty more to do and, if I look back on the last dozen years and honestly reflect on those I’ve worked with and interacted with, this is still a pretty difficult list of stuff to do and some of those people just don’t have the capability to do it. They will have to look hard at themselves and decide how they are going to resolve that because it will turn out to be the toughest thing that they have done in their career so far.
The difficult stuff comes now:
Managing Multiple Suppliers
- Departments are no longer going to have an easy ride as they seek to extend an existing contract or renew what they have now (a large single supplier monopoly over their IT). They’re going to be pushed to break up contracts into smaller pieces, contract with or involve more SMEs and reuse what is already in place elsewhere. There is no better place to start than by getting something you already have, or something that you need to have, from the G-Cloud framework. CIOs will need to increase the capability of their teams – and their own capability too – otherwise they will find that they are no longer playing a part in this new approach. Some CIOs and some teams will not be able to make that transition.
Apples With Apples
- For years, obtaining data about what government pays for IT and, worse, what it gets for that money has been mission impossible. With transparency, increasing use of frameworks and smaller contracts, it will be easier than it has ever been to compare like for like costs across departments. CIOs will want to get ahead of that curve now and find out what their IT is truly costing them so that they can compare what new market offers really provide and whether it is worth making an early switch – and the pressure to make that switch before the end of the contract is only likely to increase as the true size of cost reductions becomes evident.
Digital By Default
- The need to design services around the customer will become pervasive -whether that customer is a citizen in front of a web browser at home or one of our own staff working in an office. The shift to “digital by default” (rather than “digital as well”) is fundamental and will cause a wholesale upheaval in organisations across government. People who thought they were in charge of delivering transactions probably won’t be, people who are on the inside of government might find themselves moved to the outside and entirely new product offers will come about as a result.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
- IT in government has certainly come a long way, it just hasn’t come far enough. It remains #unacceptable. The trends of the last couple of years – transparency, open data, open services, SMEs – aren’t going away; if anything, they will go stronger and bed in deeper.
What needs to happen next:
- CIOs across government need to recognise what has changed and stop hiding behind the comfort blanket of what has always been done before. That blanket is on fire.
- Big suppliers should see the smoke from that comfort blanket and recognise that the world of government IT has changed. They can no longer rely on delivering poor service for big money and get away with it. The customer approach is changing and they will need to change too, or be consumed by the flames.
- SMEs should embrace the opportunity they now have and bring their capabilities – speed, flexibility and low prices – to the government market. For the first time, government is ready.