A bad week for retailers, or a good week for digital retailing?

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It's not been a great week for retailers. Look at Tesco - terrible; online sales grew by a whole 11%. And ailing DIY chain Homebase too - digital revenue up by 12%.

Of course, you might only have seen the headlines about Tesco's profit decline and accounting errors, or Homebase shutting a quarter of its stores. As a result, you might not have heard that Homebase's sister-company Argos saw online sales reach 43% of revenue; mobile sales increase by 45% in six months; or that 22% of sales now come through mobile or tablet devices.

Since the dot com boom of the late 1990s, we have heard much discussion about "bricks and clicks" - retailers looking to merge the best of the online and physical worlds. But even after all that talk, there are plenty still not getting it right.

If you look at two of the best performing high-street retail giants - Argos and John Lewis - what distinguishes them is a genuinely integrated multi-channel approach to their customers. Want to buy online and collect in store? You can do that. Want to buy something in the shop that is out of stock? Sure - here's a tablet device to use, we'll deliver to home for you.

Argos is even trialling digital concept stores - effectively, a physical store that sells digitally to customers who visit in person.

Tesco continues to be a leader and innovator in online retail - but perhaps underestimated the impact its digital success would have on austerity era shoppers unwilling or unable to afford premium products in store. Factor in aggressive low-cost competitors like Aldi and Lidl and you get the current problems.

Many retailers still see digital as something separate to their stores when their customers see them simply as different windows into their stock room. As happens in every sector, online was first seen as a threat - will the web replace the high street? Then it was seen as a complement - to save the high street, go online.

The truth is that technology does not simply replace or supersede anything - instead it fragments markets into many pieces, and eliminates barriers to entry. It demands an often radically different approach to customer engagement, not a bolt-on to old ways. Things change - and that's hard for a lot of incumbents to deal with.

The main thing that is killing the high street is retailers' reluctance to embrace digital and innovate their business models. The message from hard-up shoppers is clear - retailers need to go where their customers are.

An alternative three-point plan for IT suppliers to government

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TechUK, the IT industry trade body, kindly invited me to chair a panel debate at their launch this week of a "three-point plan" to improve the relationship between IT suppliers and government buyers.

At such a critical time for the progress of digital government, any initiative to position the IT industry better to help drive that strategy forward should be welcomed. But as I put it to TechUK CEO Julian David, surely this should have been business as usual for IT suppliers for years?

David was honest enough to acknowledge past problems and pragmatic enough to focus on future challenges, and for what it's worth I think he is taking TechUK in the right direction and giving the IT sector a much bigger voice in both Whitehall IT and Westminster policy-making.

But you can't get away from the fact that the only reason such a plan is needed is because the relationship between IT suppliers and government IT buyers became so bad. There is fault on both sides of course, but in recent years Whitehall IT chiefs have done much more to correct their side than many of their traditional suppliers have.

As one member of the audience at the launch event pointed out, surely the fact that the TechUK plan was produced - by their own admission - without input from government IT buyers is a clear weakness, even if TechUK is eager to have such discussions now.

If you asked a reasonable sample of government IT leaders for their three-point plan for IT suppliers, I reckon it would look something like this:

1.    Don't be greedy - be open
2.    Listen
3.    Focus on our user needs not your products

If you look at some of the firms that have prospered in government in recent years, most would fit into all those categories - they are generally smaller, more collaborative, more agile than the traditional system integrator types with their penchant for outsourcing mega-deals, off-the-shelf products and complex software licensing.

The big suppliers are trying though - slowly. HP, for example, recently brought its CEO, Meg Whitman, and several of her top team to London to co-host an "innovation summit" with head of the civil service Sir Jeremy Heywood, other permanent secretaries and government digital and IT leaders.

Of course they spoiled it somewhat by both sides agreeing not to say anything in public about what was discussed - I've tried - but you would hope that at the very least items two and three from my list above were the focus, considering HP still takes £1.7bn out of the public purse every year.

The TechUK panel also discussed the comment by Government Digital Service chief Mike Bracken in a recent Computer Weekly interview that "the ideal engagement [with suppliers] is via a browser". Not surprisingly, supplier representatives felt that was a little unrealistic.

But if nothing else, Bracken's comment serves as an ongoing warning to the IT industry that government will no longer be a pushover, and that many suppliers still need to improve the way they engage with their most important customer.

What has happened to the Prime Minister's Digital Taskforce?

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In July, the government revealed the existence of the Prime Minister's Digital Taskforce - notable at that time mainly for the fact that Tech City chair and former Facebook Europe managing director Joanna Shields had become its first appointee,

The taskforce, we were told, was headed by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, along with Ed Vaizey, recently appointed as digital economy minister after David Cameron's Cabinet reshuffle.

In the three months since then we have seen a lot of pre-election digital activity from, erm, the Labour Party. The party's Digital Skills Taskforce reported its findings in late July; Labour published the submissions to its Digital Government Review the same month; and at the party conference in September, a group of Labour digital activists backed by shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna published a report calling for a £10bn, five-year plan to make the UK the world's leading digital economy.

Kudos to Labour for making digital an issue.

But the PM's taskforce? Nothing. Last month, Computer Weekly asked the Cabinet Office for an update on its progress, its remit and timelines. Three weeks later, they got back to us to say it is "early days" and that "it's down to the taskforce to say how we stay ahead in this area". Although apparently Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat minister for employment relations and consumer affairs, is also now a deputy chair, presumably to add a Coalition flavour to the exercise.

Even the IT industry - in the guise of trade body TechUK - has since published a digital manifesto for the next government.

You don't think someone forgot, do you?

To be fair, the Cabinet Office can of course point to the great progress made by the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the emergence of what Maude called "mini GDSs" in Whitehall departments. The PM does have the advantage of being able to point to things the government has actually done - supporting Tech City, reforming the computing curriculum, promoting digital apprenticeships - rather than simply making statements of intent about things it would like to do.

But as the 2015 election approaches - and let's face it, all the political parties are into campaigning mode already - the digital and technology community will be looking to the Tories for their 2020 vision.

It's not too late of course, but if you're going to announce a digital taskforce in the Prime Minister's name, you'd better be sure it's not just populist rhetoric.

We await further details with continued interest.

HP split fails to answer questions over long-term future

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Leo Apotheker must be tearing out whatever hair he has left. The former HP chief executive was sacked in 2011 less than a year into his reign for having the temerity to try to sell off the IT giant's PC division.

Three years later, his successor Meg Whitman announced this week that after extensive planning during two years of a five-year "turnaround plan", the future of HP is... to split off its PC and printers division.

As many observers have said in the days since her announcement: "Duh!"

HP has succumbed to the inevitable, realising at long last that trying to run a consumer-oriented PC / mobile business under the same umbrella as a corporate-focused IT infrastructure business is untenable.

IBM realised this years ago in selling its PC division to Lenovo - indeed, IBM has taken it further by also selling Lenovo its x86 server business this year. HP's move leaves Microsoft and Dell as the only remaining big IT suppliers trying to combine significant consumer and corporate product lines.

Microsoft's new CEO Satya Nadella has already faced calls to split off the software giant's consumer business too - and it is noticeable how his language around Windows has changed to emphasise its enterprise IT strengths. Questions remain over Dell's ability to maintain a PC business alongside its infrastructure products - but at least CEO Michael Dell no longer has the pressure of external shareholders to worry about since buying back the company he founded.

HP's decision is as sensible as it was inevitable - even if it was three years late. But it hasn't taken away a lot of question marks over the newly named Hewlett Packard Enterprise half of the company that will become the corporate IT infrastructure supplier.

The hardware business is in long-term decline - hence IBM's server sell-off - and HP has allowed rivals and new entrants to out-innovate in most of its core future markets: flash storage, software-defined networking, cloud services and so on.

HP is no longer a technology leader in any of the key IT sectors - even in those where it remains the market leader thanks to its legacy customers. The company is pushing cloud heavily - and recently acquired cloud software specialist Eucalyptus to help - but is miles behind Amazon Web Services (AWS). It's even miles behind Google and Microsoft Azure - themselves miles behind AWS.

Some observers have questioned whether HP will now sell off its IT services division - the former EDS, acquired for $13.9bn in 2008 before a $9bn write-down in 2012. Others have suggested further acquisitions or mergers - EMC in particular has been mentioned - but HP's recent history of acquisitions is about as bad as it gets, with that $9bn EDS write-off followed by $1.2bn lost on Palm and $8.8bn on Autonomy.

For HP's customers it has been a whirlwind - but most of them have HP so embedded into their IT infrastructure that it will take an extended refresh cycle before any worried CIOs choose to dump HP entirely. As a result, HP has been protected by its sheer size - it has, in effect, been too big to fail.

But now the supplier becomes voluntarily smaller, that protection starts to erode. It is easy to see a future where further parts of the company are sold off, where legacy businesses decline, and growth in emerging technologies fails to replace that revenue.

Will the historic Hewlett Packard name still be a major force in IT in 2020? It's impossible to say, either way, with any certainty.

Credit where it's due - this government has made huge progress on digital and IT

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It was hugely welcome to see the prominence that digital issues were given during the Labour and Conservative party conferences. Nobody would pretend that voters will make their decisions based on digital policy over NHS, the economy or education, but politicians are taking IT seriously and realising the benefits it can deliver, more than ever before.

This is also a good opportunity to give credit where it is due. We have come a very long way with government IT since the last election. Before May 2010 we still had plans for an ID cards system, for a children's database, and the ongoing fiasco of the NHS National Programme. The scale of change since then should not be underestimated.

Under the leadership of digital chief Mike Bracken and CTO Liam Maxwell - backed by the political weight of Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude - enormous progress has been made in cutting IT waste, bringing vital skills back in house, and embedding digital across Whitehall departments.

The first Civil Service chief executive was appointed this week - the second item on the list of his priorities in the press release was "digital transformation of public services and the way government works". That would have been unthinkable just five years ago, when government IT was a thing done by big system integrators that cost billions and was prone to expensive failure.

Listen to Mike Bracken talk about the next five-year parliamentary cycle, and he is confident that digital transformation will be far greater than what has taken place in this parliament. Read Sir Jeremy Heywood, the head of the Civil Service, writing about how "government as a platform" is central to reforming Whitehall and its policy-making processes.

Words are not actions of course, but changing the language is an important step to changing the culture. In a short space of time, we are now in a very different and much improved world when it comes to IT in government.

That's not to say there aren't still risks and problems to address. The troubled launch of the DVLA's new online car tax service shows that for all the positivity around digital, mistakes can and will still be made.

As more of the first wave of digital services go live, scrutiny will be intense. In particular, the Verify identity assurance service that is central to digital citizen engagement will need to prove itself as its first public beta is readied for launch very soon. Of all the new digital services, Verify seems to be attracting the most cynicism from some quarters - and in many ways is the most complex to deliver and to sell to the public.

Five years ago, we hoped that IT would be recognised across government for the benefits it can deliver - but time and again Computer Weekly was writing about project failures that simply repeated the same old problems.

Now, that recognition is there at last - we are going in the right direction. There will be problems, maybe more high-profile failures along the way, but the context for government IT is very different as the general election race hots up. Whoever wins the public's vote bears the responsibility to continue the positive progress that has been made.

In May 2010, Computer Weekly posed 10 IT questions that the new government would have to answer - here is a brief report card on how well they have done so far:

What happens to all the contracts signed for now-scrapped projects such as ID cards and ContactPoint?

Sorted and forgotten about. 10/10

Who will fund next-generation broadband roll-out?

The BDUK allocation of £1.7bn to support rural broadband roll-out has been controversial - not least that all that cash went to BT - but progress has certainly been made. 7/10

What are the plans for IT skills development and the IT curriculum in schools?

The new computing curriculum started in September and has been welcomed by industry and educators alike. The IT skills shortage in the sector remains, but the growth of apprenticeships - supported by both main political parties - is helping to make a dent. Much more still needs to be done though. 6/10

What happens to public sector IT spending and the government IT strategy?

The Cabinet Office aggressively renegotiated a number of existing IT deals, and the government digital strategy claims to have saved a further £200m - even if the National Audit Office has questioned some of that figure. 7/10

Does the NHS IT Programme have a future?

Rightly scrapped, although not without controversy as key supplier CSC was still set to benefit to the tune of £600m despite its abject failure to deliver. NHS IT has been devolved, but the wider funding crisis in the health service means progress has been slower than hoped. 6/10

How to tackle illegal downloading?

Some rather ham-fisted legislation has been put in place, and new copyright laws came into force this month. But this remains a controversial and complex area. 5/10

Do we still have a digital inclusion strategy?

Progress has been slow, but a new digital inclusion strategy was finally published this year, and a team within GDS is now responsible for ensuring that people who don't use the internet can still use new digital services. 6/10

What next for open data?

Francis Maude declares himself a supporter of open data, and again, a lot of progress has been made and much more public data is now open to all - even if there are some technical problems to overcome, and much more data yet to be released. 7/10

Will IT projects be made more transparent?

Progress on the 25 digital exemplars has been admirably public, with status updates available on the web for all to see. More than 80 services now have online performance dashboards to monitor service levels. But there remains a culture of secrecy in pockets, not least the Department for Work and Pensions, rightly criticised for the lack of transparency around the troubled Universal Credit IT project. Overall, progress is being made, but much room for improvement. 6/10

What will be done to support UK innovation?

Tech City has been established as a flagship brand for UK startups and the buzz around the tech startup scene is greater than ever. Big companies are supporting startups - partly to make up for the lack of innovation coming from their traditional IT suppliers - and the influence of the startup scene in Number 10 is higher than ever. We haven't created the British Facebook or Google yet though. 7/10

CIOs should use IT apprenticeships to tackle digital skills shortages

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One of the things Labour leader Ed Miliband remembered to say in his party conference speech this week was to criticise the IT industry.

He singled out IT employers for bringing in a growing number of overseas workers, while the number of apprentices entering the sector fell. "You must provide apprenticeships for the next generation," he said. And he's right.

Labour wants to force companies to take on one apprentice for every non-EU worker they bring in - and to make apprenticeships a condition of being a supplier to government. Putting aside the practicalities of such a policy, the intent is very welcome.

For too long now, Computer Weekly has had to highlight the massive dichotomy in UK IT - every employer says there is a huge skills shortage, yet training budgets are down and the number of young people entering the IT profession is falling.

Figures out this week show that IT graduates are nearly twice as likely as average to be unemployed six months after leaving university - and that is despite IT graduates being the best paid.

And yet, research suggests that 120,000 new recruits are needed every year into UK IT. Some estimates suggest the UK IT sector could create as many as a million new jobs by 2020. Who is going to fill them?

The Coalition government has actively encouraged the growth of apprenticeships. Some IT companies have signed up to promote apprenticeships, and the most enthusiastic of them have put together a set of standards to ensure quality training for apprentices in key technology and digital roles.

All the basics are in place - it just needs more employers to sign up.

So far, it's been IT suppliers taking the lead in digital apprenticeships - but surely it is time for CIOs to step up too. Look around your IT team - how many young people are there? Is there a focus on bringing in new blood and developing them - or do you always look for a finished product every time?

We need a change in culture in IT departments to promote training and development, and to be able to bring in young people and help them contribute to corporate IT. Miliband was right to point a finger at IT - it is time IT employers stepped up and turned more to graduates and apprentices to fill the jobs for today and tomorrow.

Greater devolution offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to accelerate digital government

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So Scotland is not going it alone - and in all probability the whole of the UK will be better for that decision.

The independence drive engaged voters in Scotland like never before, and also revealed the deep dissatisfaction across the rest of the UK with the status quo of Westminster politics.

It now looks likely that not only Scotland, but also Wales, Northern Ireland and the English cities and regions will get some form of greater devolution and more local powers. The details are yet to be worked out, but one thing is for sure - any such moves present a once in a lifetime opportunity to speed the switch to more digital public services.

From an IT perspective, there are two conclusions you can draw regarding greater devolution. First, it would be a calamity to try to adapt existing, clunky old government IT systems in Whitehall or in local authorities to support devolved powers. Those systems are so fixed and inflexible that the cost and effort would be a waste of time.

Second, that devolved powers cannot mean an extra layer of IT bureaucracy sitting between Whitehall and councils. There will no doubt be a knee-jerk desire to simply put a new front-end on to existing systems to give the appearance of more local autonomy. This would rapidly become an exemplar of the old cliché, putting lipstick on a pig.

Devolved powers are instead the ideal opportunity for what has become known as government as a platform. Each devolved authority will have a large number of common requirements - making and receiving payments, booking appointments, managing resources, purchasing and invoicing, and so on.

Currently, those functions are performed repeatedly in Whitehall and town halls in isolation, using siloed and usually proprietary systems, with little or no data sharing.

In a new devolved arrangement, why waste the time and money going through repeated procurement exercises to buy numerous incompatible and closed systems. This is instead a time for the public sector IT and digital community to come together and develop standardised platforms for these generic functions, made available as open source code for any authority to use.

Every devolved authority can then build the local, personalised extras they need, on top of those standard platforms. By using common data formats and open standards, greater information sharing will enable new services designed to make citizens' lives easier. Moving home? Just click a button to transfer all your details to your new local authority.

Politicians benefit too - with more measurable, transparent services, lower costs, and greater policy-making flexibility.

The new impetus for change across the public sector presents an opportunity that digital government leaders must grasp.

Could IT hinder Scotland's desire for change?

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Whichever way Scotland votes on its independence, one outcome that is assured will be the need for one of the fastest and most ambitious IT projects the public sector has ever seen.

If Scotland leaves the UK, it will need to set up IT systems to replace every one of the functions it currently shares with Whitehall - in particular tax collection and welfare payments. Computer Weekly research suggested the cost could be in excess of £1bn.

Even if Scotland votes to stay, the offer of much greater devolution is likely to mean that many of those systems will still need to be developed from scratch. The time it's taking to develop a new welfare system for the UK - Universal Credit - shows that it's no easy option to try to adapt current systems for a subset of the population who may be taxed or paid benefits using different rules and rates to those outside Scotland.

While Scotland has its own IT for existing devolved functions - such as NHS, education, police and justice - it's a huge undertaking to put in place the additional government services from scratch. And that's without even considering timescales - Scottish independence would start in March 2016, just 18 months after the vote.

Such a project would be unprecedented, but there are examples to turn to. Estonia is widely lauded as the most digital government in the world - thanks to the fact it had to start from nothing after gaining independence from the former Soviet Union. But even Estonia - a country with a quarter of Scotland's population - took a lot longer than 18 months to do so.

Scotland may yet be forced to use existing Whitehall systems on an outsourced basis - but that would seriously hinder its ability to make the sort of political and policy changes that the Yes campaigners have promised.

The UK government intends to redevelop tax and welfare systems in the coming years as it rolls out the digital by default approach. But that's not going to happen by March 2016.

Technology, of course, is not one of the issues that will decide which way Scotland votes. But it will be a critical issue in delivering the future government that Scotland will gain either way.

Speak English! IT industry must take its jargon out of the cloud

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We all had a bit of a giggle, didn't we, when the Daily Mail tried to explain "the cloud" to its readers.

In a story about the apparent hacking of Apple's iCloud service that led to the publication of various celebrities' naked selfies, the Mail wrote:

"The moment you snap a photo with an iPhone, for instance, a copy is uploaded - not to an actual cloud - but to a bank of gigantic humming and whirring computers in vast warehouses thousands of miles away in California or North Carolina".
BBC's News at Ten also struggled to describe the cloud in terms that would make it clear to the everyday viewer - although didn't stoop quite so low as to suggest viewers might start looking up to the skies for pictures of Jennifer Lawrence.

It's easy to be smug - but the fault here lies not with the Daily Mail or the BBC, but with the technology industry.

This is yet another perfect example of the continuing desire of the IT sector to wrap itself in jargon and buzzwords. Once upon a time, IT relied on its own obscure language to justify its existence. Never heard of virtualisation? Don't worry Mr CEO, the IT guys understand it, so you had better give them a pay rise and a decent budget.

That has never been an acceptable situation. The single biggest complaint from business executives about their IT counterparts has been the inability to speak the same language. Jargon has been a major contributor to the gap between "the business" and the IT department that has existed since the first business computer.

That gap has protected IT for too long, but now it's a threat not a salvation. IT no longer controls the drawbridge between jargon and understanding.

Technology belongs to everyone thanks to consumerisation. If the IT industry cannot talk in the language of its customers, those customers will simply look elsewhere. Ironically Apple has done the most to bridge the gap, making its products so easy to use that it threw away the user manual - that perpetual source of confusion and misunderstanding.

But it's no good IT simply expecting that its users need to do the thinking - why should they know what we mean by a cloud? More than ever, IT needs to talk the language of its users. Please, let's finally scrap the jargon and use words that people understand.

Technology on trial - justice system could do better at finding digital fingerprints

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I've just completed jury duty - my first real-life experience of the English judicial process. It's a fascinating thing to do - I would recommend it to anyone. But it was also an eye opener for the role of technology as evidence in a case.

This is based on just one trial in which I was involved - albeit a complex and disturbing one - and it's always risky to generalise, but if the trial was symptomatic of elsewhere in the criminal justice system, it's clear there is a lot to learn, and to gain, about how technology can help.

As a juror I'm restricted in what I can discuss about the case - we 12 were unable to reach a verdict and the Crown Prosecution Service now has to decide whether or not to re-try the defendant.

But suffice to say it was a difficult case, involving acts of incest and paedophilia. As is so often the case with sexual assault charges, it can boil down to one person's word against another's.

Big advances have been made in the use of technology for evidence in court cases. Specialist police officers are trained in recovering information from mobile devices and other computers. The use of mobile location tracking and CCTV has been key to many cases.

But if my experience is anything to go by, the justice system is still missing an opportunity. With ever more widespread use of mobile devices, apps, social media and so on, the evidential trail is widening.

As a juror I can't go into details of this particular case, but I would say that better use of technology-based evidence might have made a significant difference to the trial.

We all leave an extensive digital trail these days - recognised by the government in its controversial attempts to force through legislation to retain as much of our technological footprint as possible.

But greater knowledge and awareness about technology needs to be spread through the police and judiciary, and a greater focus on how digital fingerprints can be just as important as physical ones.

If, as I suspect, the trial I watched was just one example of a much wider issue, there is a huge opportunity to improve the English justice system - and cut its costs - if technology is used more wisely and effectively in preparing evidence to help a jury make its difficult decision of guilty or not guilty.

Standing up for government IT - despite the e-Borders fiasco

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It may be an unfashionable thing to do this week, but I'd like to stand up for government IT.

Whitehall IT has been under particular scrutiny lately, eliciting a Financial Times editorial piece, and a lengthy analysis in The Guardian, among widespread national newspaper coverage.

The catalyst for this was understandable - the Home Office being forced to stump up some £224m to Raytheon after an arbitration tribunal found the government was wrong in 2010 to cancel the supplier's £750m contract to provide the e-Borders system.

Cue the usual - and deserved - hand wringing about government IT cock-ups.

But where the resultant criticism has got it wrong is in complaining about the same old faults that have been the cause of pretty much every past IT disaster you can think of - the "weakness for big IT projects" and "rigid specifications" cited by the FT; the "big bang" projects and lack of civil service skills referenced by The Guardian.

Nobody would deny those as major factors in the e-Borders situation, nor in other recent headline failures such as at the Ministry of Justice and in the Universal Credit welfare programme.

But it is only right and fair to point out that not only does the current government know and acknowledge these as problems, it has spent the last few years trying to do something about them.

Big IT projects? The Cabinet Office "red lines" process is in place to prevent any projects with an external spend of more than £100m unless they have a special justification.

Rigid specifications? You can't get within earshot of a senior government IT leader without hearing the word "agile" in every other sentence.

Big bang projects? There is now a new process in place for "agile" business cases, which means IT projects no longer need to assume everything is needed up front, nor needs to go live at the same time.

Civil service skills? This remains a challenge - purely because the public sector is competing for scarce digital skills in a market full of shortages - but perhaps the most important achievement of the Government Digital Service (GDS) has been to establish that the civil service needs its own in-house digital and technology skills. Those skills must never be outsourced again.

Perhaps the most relevant proof of these changes relates to e-Borders itself. As Computer Weekly revealed earlier this year, the project that was meant to replace e-Borders was rejected by the Cabinet Office because it breached those new rules - the Home Office wanted another mega-outsourcing deal with a big systems integrator; and it did not confirm to GDS principles for agile projects.

As a result, the Home Office was sent back to the drawing board to find a new, digital approach, which is now underway.

Of course, all of those fixes described above are a work in progress and have a way to go to become embedded in government IT from top to bottom. And all it takes is a big failure in one or two smaller, agile but high-profile projects to raise fresh questions.

But until or unless that happens, we should give praise where it's due, take encouragement from the changes underway, and as taxpayers hope they are getting it right at last.

UK needs a digital infrastructure for 2030 and beyond, not 2020

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Coverage of Ofcom's latest annual report on the state of communications in the UK shows that much of the so-called establishment in the country still look at technology with wide-eyed wonder: "Ooh, pretty; clever; shiny!"

National newspaper headlines proclaiming that children understand more about technology than their parents were probably written by the same people who, as children themselves, were showing their parents how to program the VCR 20 years ago. It was ever thus.

At a government level, politicians are only starting to realise they can look good by being associated with tech - hence George Osborne turning up to launch a new fintech programme last week, and David Cameron ever desperate to associate himself with tech startups (even if much of his promised cash doesn't actually get spent).

Meanwhile, as the establishment gazes in rapture, the rest of us are just getting on with being digital. We're on the web more than ever, using mobiles, connecting to Wi-Fi, upgrading to superfast broadband, watching Netflix, and quite naturally integrating all this great technology into our everyday life and work.

There can no longer be any question of whether people are embracing technology - it is self-evident they are, and that given new tools and faster speeds, we will all continue to do so. There is no need to debate if or when we will need 5G mobile and 100Mbps (or more) broadband - it is obvious that we will, and sooner rather than later.

The government also quietly announced this week a consultation on a national communications infrastructure strategy, which is pondering just these sorts of questions and what public support will be needed to make it happen. It's an absolutely critical process, but it needs to be much higher profile and more ambitious.

The key infrastructure questions for the UK in 2030 or 2040 are not to do with airports, roads or railways - they are to do with communications and technology. It's no good looking at what we need in 2020 because we need to be looking much further ahead than that - not guessing what technologies will have emerged in 20 years' time, but enabling an environment that allows them to emerge and be rapidly adopted.

One of the biggest risks to the UK's digital economy is that the digital masses are way ahead of the establishment policymakers. Today's 4G and broadband "notspots" are tomorrow's economic problems.

Without prompt, ambitious, long-term digital thinking at the highest levels of commerce and politics, there is a real danger that by 2020 our national infrastructure will become even more a source of technical frustration than it already is.

The new computing curriculum starts next month - don't waste this opportunity

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While children are off enjoying their summer holidays, the last thing they want to hear is about next term. But in a few weeks, the school year they return to in September will be one of the most important for the future of IT in the UK.

The much-heralded new computing curriculum will be taught for the first time, with hopes that its greater relevance to the modern digital world will lead to more school leavers' choosing a career in IT over the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, the shortage of skills that new school course is intended to tackle is only becoming more pressing.

The European Commission warned last month that 900,000 IT jobs need to be filled by 2020 across the European Union. The Labour-commissioned Digital Skills Taskforce, led by former Tomorrow's World presenter Maggie Philbin, published its report last month too, citing research that found 745,000 more workers with digital skills will be needed by 2017 in the UK alone.

But Philbin's report also highlighted the lack of funds available to make the new course work. Currently, the government has offered just £3.5m to support the curriculum - equating to just £175 per school. Philbin called for a further £20m to be invested by 2020. There is a clear risk that not enough teachers are equipped to deliver the computing curriculum successfully.

Our best hope is that the increasingly widespread acknowledgement of the UK needing more and better digital skills at all levels has enough momentum to be sustained, delivering real results.

Over the past 10 years, we have seen too many failed initiatives. There has rarely been any shortage of intent, but rarely enough funding, resources or government commitment.

The next five years are a one-off opportunity to develop the UK's digital skills base and implement measures that will stick in the long term. If, by 2020, we have failed to embed technology skills into education, training, government policy and corporate life, it will be too late. The focal points of the global digital economy will have gone elsewhere.

Everyone in IT carries a responsibility to make this work, from encouraging your own children to study computing, to being a role model for the next generation. Shout louder about the great opportunities from working in technology, and ensure we can build the digital economy the UK sorely needs.

Read more about the new computing curriculum:

Let's not forget the computing curriculum's bigger picture: Computational thinking

Teachers unprepared for 2014 computing curriculum

Why computing curriculum fails to light academics' flame of inspiration

Businesses and schools need to collaborate to deliver computing curriculum

Google injects £120,000 into Code Club Pro to train teachers for computing curriculum

We don't want to "sheep dip" teachers says DfE on computing curriculum

Computing curriculum agreed and set for 2014 launch

Microsoft unveils primary school suite for new computing curriculum teachers

Congratulations to GDS on open document formats - but will Microsoft resort to litigation?

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Back in February, when the UK government's consultation on the use of open document formats closed, I described the decision to be made by the Cabinet Office as the acid test of its commitment to open standards.

Well, congratulations to all involved, for it is a test they have passed with flying colours.

The policy has been formally ratified, and ODF is now the standard format for sharing government documents - rejecting Microsoft's impassioned proposals to add its preferred OOXML standard to the approved list. The move has been widely welcomed across the industry, and even as far as Brussels, with EU Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes, tweeting her approval.

The policy has been less well received in the Thames Valley headquarters of Microsoft UK. The software giant, not surprisingly, is unhappy, stating that it is "unproven and unclear how UK citizens will benefit" from the decision.

So one question now remains: how serious is Microsoft's objection to the decision to choose ODF?

The Government Digital Service (GDS) is concerned that the issue may not be left to rest. In its latest GDS Business Plan for 2014/15, hidden away on page 43 of a 72-page document, it states one of the risks to its policy: "There is the potential for litigation on open standards".

Is that risk highlighted out of some potentially misguided attitude towards Microsoft, on the basis that's the sort of thing a big company might do to protect its market dominance?

Or are those fears based on comments - threats, even - made by Microsoft executives during discussions with GDS over the open standards policy?

We know that Microsoft has gone to great lengths over the past three years - since the Cabinet Office first announced its open standards policy - to lobby against decisions that might reduce Microsoft's revenue from its biggest UK customer. The supplier has also petitioned Labour, encouraging the party's Digital Government Review to avoid commitment to a single document standard (or at least, to avoid a single standard that is not its own).

Plenty of lobbying cash has been spent, unsuccessfully, to get to this point. Is there more left in the pot to fund litigation? We will have to wait and see, but Microsoft should resist any such urge. Accept the decision, move on, prove it can compete on a more level playing field.

GDS, meanwhile, faces its own challenges in making the policy stick across Whitehall. GDS director Mike Bracken acknowledged as much, writing in a blog that, "This is a big step for government, and things won't change overnight."

But it's a positive step to government taking back control of its IT decision-making, and creating the open architecture and level playing field it has stated for so long that it wants to achieve. Round one to GDS.

Apple/IBM tie-up provides historic counterpoint to Microsoft's massive job cuts

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Sometimes news stories coincide fortuitously in a way that highlights the significance of major trends transforming the IT landscape - and we have a big one this week.

Yesterday, Apple and IBM announced a partnership that will see the biggest name in corporate IT developing enterprise-focused tools to support the biggest name in consumer technology for its customers.

IBM will resell Apple products and open up its global partner network to the combined product set - giving Apple a corporate IT veneer it has previously lacked and rarely shown any interest in developing.

The very next day, Microsoft laid off 18,000 people as a result of its acquisition of Nokia.

The historical resonances stretch back over 30 years, to when IBM and Microsoft jointly created the IBM PC and desktop computing transformed the IT world as a result. The big loser from that deal? Apple - then an emerging player in personal computing that subsequently fell on hard times as Microsoft's DOS/Windows software licensing model, hardware neutrality and partner ecosystem left the Mac as a niche product.

Thirty years later, Microsoft's increasingly desperate attempts to protect its Windows Phone business led to buying Nokia, its only dedicated smartphone partner, at a time when Nokia's smartphone sales were falling through the floor.

Apple is on the offensive - making its first tie-up with one of the traditional giants of corporate IT, helping IBM to offer mobile and cloud-based IT products and services based on the most popular smartphone and tablet technologies used in businesses today.

Microsoft meanwhile is struggling to protect its position in mobile, and under a new CEO starting to preach a "cloud-first, mobile-first" strategy that it hopes will reverse its declining influence on end-user computing.

Satya Nadella has chosen his words carefully to not be overtly criticising his predecessor Steve Ballmer, but his plans are an almost total rejection of the previous "devices and services" strategy.

Microsoft has even realised that it has no future as a Windows-centric supplier. Its cloud service is now just Azure, no longer Windows Azure. Office is available for the iPad - and being relentlessly and successfully promoted by Microsoft executives.

You could equally argue that IBM needs Apple a lot more than Microsoft needed Nokia. IBM has been late to the party on cloud, while Azure has established itself as the second biggest cloud service - although well behind market leader Amazon Web Services.

Both suppliers realise that users - both consumer and professional - will be using mobile devices connected to cloud services as the primary way to access personal and corporate applications.

IT leaders will have to assess which offering - Apple devices plus IBM cloud, or Microsoft cloud plus Nokia devices - is best suited to their corporate environment. Although of course, without the Windows lock-in that has kept so many IT managers tied to Microsoft for years, there's no reason they can't choose almost any other combination of Apple/Android devices with anybody else's cloud. Who knows, they might even choose Windows Phone.

Old partnerships are being re-written. There will be some very big losers. The biggest winners will be the IT leaders who make the most of these dramatically shifting sands.

The government has finally been forced to admit that the business case for the troubled Universal Credit programme has still not been signed off - despite repeated assurances that approval was imminent.

The business case is required to confirm the spending needed to see the welfare reform programme through to completion. The Treasury will not sign off the project and release funding until all aspects have been checked and approved by the various Whitehall authorities - not least the Major Projects Authority (MPA) and the Government Digital Service (GDS) whose intervention early last year led to the project being reviewed and eventually "reset" in September 2013.

The admission came in a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) meeting yesterday when, pressed by PAC chair Margaret Hodge, the head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake said the business case had yet to be signed off.

Hodge had been pressing Kerslake and his fellow senior civil servants, asking them four times whether the approval had been given, and receiving classic "Sir Humphrey" answers in return, before Kerslake finally bit the bullet and said: "I think we should not beat about the bush. It has not been signed off."

That statement came after much beating about the bush, for example:

Hodge: "Is it [Universal Credit] on track now?"

Sir Jeremy Heywood: "In its current form, I believe it is."

Hodge: "What do you mean, 'In its current form'?"

Heywood: "That is something we look at very carefully."

Hodge: "I just want to get one answer to the question. Have you signed off the business case?"

Sir Nicolas Macpherson: "On universal credit? I think the Treasury have discussed this quite frequently. I believe that at each key milestone of the reset programme there is a Treasury decision to take."

Hodge: "Have you signed it off?"

Macpherson: "It is signed up, up to a point; up to the point...Up to the milestones."

Hodge: "I do want an answer. I want just a yes or no. Has it been signed off or not?"

Heywood: "I cannot speak [for] the Treasury."
At this point, Kerslake folded and gave the answer Hodge wanted and most people have suspected for some time. He went on to add: "We have had a set of conditional assurances about progress and the Treasury has released money accordingly. That is one of the key controls they have"

So in other words, money to fund Universal Credit is only being released in small chunks for clearly defined sets of work, until the Treasury and its advisers have the confidence that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) isn't going to make the same cock-up it did before. And they don't yet have that confidence.

The obfuscation around Universal Credit continues to amaze. DWP statements continue to confirm the project is on track - and who knows, it might well be? But nobody fully trusts those statements given the track record the department has on denying problems in the project.

Just last month, the National Audit Office (NAO) warned that it is still not convinced of the DWP's ability to deliver.

"It is clear that the department still has much to do to address all the concerns raised [about Universal Credit] and to ensure it delivers value for money," the watchdog said in its latest DWP financial report.

The second-hand whispers coming out of the DWP - and I stress these are from people who tell me they know people, rather than direct inside sources - say that the digital team under Kevin Cunnington are doing a good job in developing the "end-state" digital system that will eventually form the basis of the system that goes live by 2017 to support the full roll-out.

But that digital system has yet to be tested in anger - not until the Autumn is it due to be tried out on 100 real-life claimants.

We know that the NAO is going to review Universal Credit again before next year's general election, and until then we will no doubt continue on a combination of leaks, speculation, and yet more blind DWP optimism. That NAO review is undoubtedly going to determine what happens to the project after the election.

Labour has already said it will pause the programme if it wins the election. You can be sure the Tories would have a serious rethink too, especially if the NAO finds further problems. And an election victory for David Cameron would also give him a timely excuse to take the much criticised secretary of state, Iain Duncan Smith, away from the project (and the DWP) completely.

In the meantime, we are left picking through the civil-service speak and the obfuscations and the misdirections to find the truth. And let's remember - this was the flagship reform programme for a government that declared it would be the most open and transparent in history.

To every male IT leader - it is your responsibility to get more women into IT

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Congratulations to the 25 most influential women in UK IT - our annual list was announced yesterday, and it contains some amazing, high-achieving individuals (who happen to be women).

The event at which we announced the list - attended this year by 120 of the most senior and successful women in UK IT, every one a role model in their own right - is a fantastic afternoon. It has an atmosphere and an energy entirely different to the male-dominated, men-in-suits events that are so commonplace in technology.

But with only 16% of the UK IT profession being female - a statistic that continues to shame the industry - it is all too difficult to get a more balanced and diverse set of delegates to most IT conferences.

After last year's event, I wrote a post on this blog with 10 things that men need to do to help get more women into IT. There's a growing realisation that no amount of women in IT networking events or female role models or encouraging girls at school to consider a career in IT, will change the status quo.

The only way to make a change is if the men in IT make it happen - and that was the theme of this year's event.

We heard from three male IT leaders - James Evans, director of IT strategy and enterprise architecture at BP; James Robbins, CIO at Northumbrian Water; and Kevin Gallagher, CIO of Channel 4 - each of whom has positively targeted a more diverse workforce in their IT teams. Every one of them talked about the benefits that more female representation has brought to their organisations - the diverse set of skills that add to and complement those of their male colleagues.

But those three are sadly rare exceptions. It is all too common to hear male IT leaders say, "Of course I understand why there should be more women in IT, but at the end of the day, does it really matter? I have a great team, does it matter that they are nearly all men?"

It's an easy statement to make, and one that reflects the unconscious bias present to varying degrees in us all.

But it does matter.

We have a large and growing skills shortage that is the biggest single threat to the future success of the UK's digital economy. We will not fill that gap with men alone - and nor should we want to.

Some of our speakers talked about the fact that women now influence the majority of consumer technology purchases - laptops, smartphones, tablets - yet remain vastly under-represented in the companies that design, manufacture and sell those products. Our event sponsor, Microsoft, talked about the efforts it is making to redress that balance internally.

The digital revolution is not gender specific - digital technology is changing the way all of us live and work. But digital cannot deliver its full potential if it is specified, designed, built, managed and supported by a professional group that reflects the characteristics of only half the population.

James Evans from BP said that one of the keys to the energy giant's successful diversity policy was the commitment from the very top of the company.

That same principle applies to IT. To every CIO or IT leader who has responsibility for recruitment, talent management, skills, or staff promotions - the reason it matters is because you have to set the example.

It will be hard work - it will make recruitment harder, for example, but how will recruitment agencies change unless you tell them you want a quota for CVs from women?

It has to start from somewhere. Male IT leaders - it is time you took the lead. No more excuses.

Labour's digital rhetoric is increasingly positive towards GDS

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Labour MP Jon Cruddas gave a speech this week that was barely reported in the press, but contained his party's most significant statements yet about the role of digital and technology in a potential future Labour government.

Cruddas may not be a household name, but he is the co-ordinator for Labour's wide-ranging policy review, which will feed into the party's manifesto for next year's general election.

Part of that review is a look at digital government, led by Chi Onwurah, the shadow minister for digital government.

The early days of Onwurah's review spooked a lot of people with implied criticisms of the Government Digital Service (GDS). It seemed that Labour saw GDS as a Tory creation, and as such was not to be trusted. But that rhetoric has changed significantly.

In his speech, Cruddas instead suggested an even more influential role for GDS.

"Labour will share more power and responsibility with people," he said.

"Increasing the power of local places by building collaboration amongst public services and organisations, and pooling funds to stop inefficiency and avoid duplication; Developing the Government Digital Service to drive change across government - standardising data, improving sharing between departments and encouraging innovation."
That's a powerful endorsement for the future of GDS.

But Cruddas' speech also gave insights into the central role that digital could play in wider politics and policy-making. He said:

"Our traditional tools of policy making-money and top down government regulation stifle people's agency and initiative, and are too often ineffective. Parties will need to build networks to connect with the great array of small-scale innovations in society that are pioneering new directions for policy. In the future reform will need to engage more with people's behaviour and cultures and will mean mobilising people on the ground for change. The internet is changing the nature of the public sphere. It can be used to rebalance power between citizens and the market and between citizens and the state, but we will address the problems of concentrations of power, child safety, privacy and data security."
Here are a few other relevant excerpts:

"A post-industrial economy is taking shape around our advanced manufacturing and the new information and communications technologies. The shift to a services economy is flattening out old, hierarchical command and control structures. Digital technology is unseating whole industries and workforces, and production is becoming more networked and disorganised. Our class system is being reconstructed. The disruption of technological change is greater than at any times since the industrial revolution."

"We are just at the start of the internet revolution. Radical innovations in the generation, processing and transmission of information, will continue modernising the whole base of our economy. New services, products and markets will mean more knowledge, prosperity and opportunity. The web is breaking down barriers. Digital technology has transformed startup costs and it has never been easier to start and run your own business."

"Our political parties cannot keep up with our complex and fast changing society. In the new economy, politics will be about innovation and participation; about networks, not hierarchies."

"Just as in the age of steam and the age of the railways, our new digital age is radically changing society. But while rail transformed society it also created opportunities for the robber barons to monopolise and control it for their own good. We have to tackle concentrations of power, and make sure people have the skills and the abilities to take advantage of the internet. In the vanguards of the new economy there is a new productive force which is the 'life of the mind'. There are new kinds of raw materials - the intangible assets of information, sounds, words, images, ideas - and they are produced in creative, emotional and intellectual labour. New models of production are using consumers and their relationships in the co-inventing of new ideas, products and cultural meaning. People no longer just want to consume the culture and products handed to them. Technology, from computer aided design to the new 3D printing, will provide individuals with the means to actively create culture and to pursue creative forms of labour. Individuals will be able to design and make the things they live with."
You can read the whole speech here.

That is perhaps the most digitally-aware and technology-positive speech I've heard from a top-level politician. If that sort of thinking feeds through into the Labour manifesto, it can only be a positive step.

Better still, you have to hope that if Labour start to use that sort of language more often - and in speeches that get more widely reported - it will prompt a response from the Conservative Party and raise the importance of digital in the whole election debate.

It has been a Tory government, after all, that has led the digital drive through GDS.

The IT community awaits the outcome of the Labour digital government review with interest. But we should all do what we can to encourage every party to be open and detailed about what our digital future means in a government under their leadership.

Dear HP, Microsoft (and others) - stop bleating, start competing

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There's an interesting story in The Independent today that highlights the issue I wrote about on this blog last week - about the Cabinet Office policy of trying to make the old "oligopoly" of big IT suppliers change their behaviour by breaking contracts into smaller chunks and forcing them to compete with smaller rivals.

The Indie claims that HP has written to the Treasury to complain about the cap on contract sizes - the Cabinet Office "red lines" policy that rejects any IT contract worth more than £100m unless there is an exceptional reason to do so.

The story claims that HP is effectively threatening to pull out of bidding for government deals if it is no longer worth bidding for them, due to the apparent preference for smaller IT suppliers.

The Independent also remarks - without any revelations or new facts - about Microsoft's ongoing attempts to prevent the government from adopting its proposed policy for open document formats - one that does not include Microsoft's mostly proprietary formats for Word and Excel.

Microsoft has continued to heavily lobby government about that policy since the consultation closed, and you can only assume that the delays in confirming that policy may be linked to a consideration of what legal means Microsoft might be willing to resort to if the policy does not change in its favour.

If some of the things I've heard privately about the extent of that lobbying are true (I'm trying to confirm!) you would be shocked at the lengths Microsoft is going to.

Both these examples are further evidence that the old oligopoly simply does not get what is going on in government IT.

The Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service are not trying to deliberately exclude them from winning IT contracts - they just want them to change their ways so they compete on a level-playing field, one where their sheer size and scale is not a factor in winning, but where their capability, flexibility and competitiveness is.

Government CTO Liam Maxwell is right when he says that public sector IT does not have to be big or unique. Those old perceptions were what caused the bloated, over-costly, over-complex IT estate that holds back change in Whitehall today.

Whitehall still needs HP and Microsoft, and the other Big IT firms, but it wants them to compete on the buyer's terms, not the supplier's. Big IT's continued bleating about their cosy status quo being removed only serves to reinforce the reasons why that status quo had to be broken down in the first place.

If those suppliers want to continue to play a major role in government IT, the answer is simple - stop bleating, start competing.

Big IT vs SME IT in government - it's really about changing IT suppliers' behaviour

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The Cabinet Office plan to bring in more SME IT suppliers and reduce dependence on the old "oligopoly" of big systems integrators (SIs) was always going to come under greater scrutiny once some of those SIs saw their lucrative outsourcing deals come to an end.

The Financial Times ran a strange article recently featuring unattributed claims that ministers including business secretary Vince Cable were telling David Cameron that the pro-SME IT policy was wrong, after his department suffered email problems soon after it transitioned away from a Fujitsu mega-outsourcing deal.

The story claimed that the email and network issues were down to moving away from a single supplier to multiple smaller suppliers, using the "tower" model now recommended by the Government Digital Service (GDS), whereby several suppliers are contracted for different elements of the service, under an over-arching "service integrator" (which could also be the in-house IT team).

The Cabinet Office countered that the deals that replaced Fujitsu saved many millions of pounds.

Former government IT chief Alan Mather wrote a very good put-down of that story here.

My instinct was similar to Mather's - that the story smacked of a leak from the ejected incumbent after losing its 15-year outsourcing relationship with the departments in question. But that's purely speculation - I have no evidence to suggest that is the case.

Contract transition is never easy and rarely straightforward - as Fujitsu itself is extremely well placed to confirm. The supplier, which was paid £415,393,510 by the government in 2013, according to the Institute for Government - was thrown off a £300m DWP desktop support contract in 2011 barely a year after taking over from HP, after it failed to meet its transition targets.

Fujitsu and the DWP are still in legal dispute over the cancellation of the deal. So any SI would therefore be correct to point out that contract transitions are risky business.

But that FT story was just part of a theme that is growing fast as the 2015 general election approaches - you can absolutely sense that SIs that have seen their new business from government decline in recent years have their eye on a change of government and hope it brings a re-embracing of "Big IT".

That's not to say those SIs have been struggling for cash - that Institute for Government report shows that six IT providers took home £4.6bn between them from the public purse in 2012.

But the Cabinet Office "red lines" that prevent any IT deals above £100m in total value, and encourage 50% of spending to go to smaller IT firms, mean that new business has been harder to come by.

There has been plenty of bleating about this of course - "They'll learn, they can't do IT in government without us", that sort of thing - so there was always going to be a backlash.

In the next couple of years many of the biggest outsourcing deals in government are up for renewal - not least the £850m a year HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) contract with the Capgemini-led Aspire consortium (which also includes Fujitsu).

HMRC has already said it will not sign another mega-deal with a single supplier, and government CTO Liam Maxwell has repeatedly promised that none of the other existing outsourcing deals will be renewed or replaced by a single supplier.

So it is no surprise if there is plenty of spin as the first of those old deals is passed instead to several smaller companies. Anything to stop the strategy in its tracks before the really big deals come up for grabs.

But there are concerns from many observers - this one included - that Labour is courting those big SIs - and being courted by them in return.

Chi Onwurah, Labour's shadow minister for digital government - and kudos to Labour for having a shadow minister for digital government - told me at the launch of Labour's digital government review in March that it was an "exaggeration" to say that big IT suppliers are "the bogeymen of IT". While Labour supports competition and creating opportunities for SMEs, she said that large suppliers "shouldn't be locked out, but neither should they be locked in".

Some people have taken that as evidence that Labour will invite back in the big SIs that - let's be honest - served them so badly when they were last in power.

Computer Weekly blogger and former Conservative Technology Forum chairman Philip Virgo wrote this week that the suppliers "who have run UK public sector ICT for the past 20 years still expect to be able to recoup their recent losses after a Labour victory" in the election.

After reading this, Onwurah described Virgo's claim as "scaremongering" on Twitter. It seems Labour are sensitive to such suggestions, as well they should be.

My view is that the current government have been absolutely right to hammer the big SIs for their complacency and for their cosy relationships over too many years. There is no doubt that government has spent too much on IT for too long, and made its IT far more complex than it ever needed to be.

Of course, government takes its share of the blame for that - the Civil Service outsourced its IT expertise and left itself vulnerable to suppliers who will, inevitably, look to make as much money as they reasonably (and sometimes unreasonably) can.

The best change that GDS has introduced is to re-skill government IT and to place the emphasis back onto bringing in the best digital and IT management staff that it can. Forget Labour's attitude to suppliers - the real scandal would be if they reversed that recruitment policy. I've seen no suggestions that they will.

But the reason the big SIs deserve that hammering is not because they no longer deserve to win any government contracts. It is because they have not changed their behaviour, or seen any need to do so - and I think that behind all the rhetoric from the likes of Liam Maxwell and Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, that is the real agenda.

Those suppliers showed no evidence of changing, nor of recognising that they had to change, so they had to be shocked into doing so.

They have to compete on a level-playing field - not one in which contracts are so big and requirements so complex that there are never more than a handful of companies capable of competing for the deal.

If Fujitsu or HP or Capgemini or Atos or IBM or Accenture or anyone else can prove they are the best supplier to meet government needs, they will continue to win contracts. But those contracts will be smaller, more tightly defined, and (hopefully) better managed by the Whitehall departments that pay the bills.

That's not easy for a lot of big SIs whose business model and budgeting is predicated on a small number of very large, long-term contracts. But they need to work out how to make money from multiple, smaller deals - and deals which may only last two or three years, not the five, 10 or 15 they used to.

The "Big IT" versus "SME IT" argument is a smokescreen and if the Cabinet Office policy lasts, it should eventually become redundant anyway.

What really matters is genuine competition, with government sourcing IT products and services from the best suppliers for the job, without commercial or technical lock-in, without undue complexity or cost, in a broad and diverse supplier universe that best serves the needs of taxpayers.

If the old oligopoly is ready to win business in that world, they don't need to spin stories or lobby Labour. They just need to focus on their customer's needs, and deliver.

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