Should government rely less on outsourcing and have more web developers in-house?

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In-House human IT resources are considered too expensive for many organisations. Even the UK government, which is a heavy user of web technology, lacks the web development resources it needs.

And the government's digital strategy could only benefit if web development skills were brought in-house.

I was at a preview last week of a government pilot of a website that could eventually bring all government department and service websites under one URL. The project is being run by a team of developers using techniques such as agile software development, crowdsourcing and the Amazon cloud.

The project, which could save the government 50% of its £130m publishing costs, is being done in-house without a supplier in site. Usually government websites are run and created by service providers. What stood out about this project was its flexibility and the fact that everybody was in one place in a huddle.

Pic: Inside the development room.

176.JPGPerhaps the worrying thing is the fact that the team managing the project had to bring contractors in for some of the software development. Why does the government not have enough internally to carry out this kind of activity, given the importance of software development to its digital strategy?

Tom Loosemore, who heads up the team, has only been a civil servant for a short team but has recognised the need for more in-house web developers in government. He said there is an argument, in the government environment, for more in-house developers for the web because the only constant is that the expectations of customers will change. Being agile is therfore vital and organisations need to keep abreast of what is needed.

Loosemore is a web development expert with six years' experience at the BBC.

Here is a link to the pilot if you want to try it and give your comments.

4 Comments

Introducing new skills into government web development in this way is certainly a promising step, but websites are only a tiny part of government IT, e.g. it takes a lot more than a few web developers to keep the HMRC IT systems running - even as badly as they do.

Having worked on several government projects, my impression is that the public sector often has decent numbers of development staff who are potentially capable of doing these things, but it is utterly incapable of making productive, cost-effective use of those staff.

Byzantine bureaucratic internal processes, inflexibility, an obstructive silo mentality, salami-slicing of budgets so that no department wants to pay for something that might be useful to another, inability to take advantage of new technologies without years of agonising and death-by-committee, a profound lack of any sense that time is money, and a tendency by both managers and development staff to assume that developers need to be spoon fed with instructions and expensive external training courses before they can possibly be expected to explore new tools/technologies/techniques for producing faster/better/cheaper software of any kind. These are common factors that seem to cripple much in-house development work in many government organisations.

Combined with the recent era of big budget white elephant "big bang" projects driven by idiot politicians and eagerly encouraged by the fat consultancies, this has helped to create a culture of in-house incapacity, a (sometimes well-justified) lack of confidence in their own judgement, and a strong dependency on being told what to do by expensive corporate consultants.

It can seem to be impossible to achieve anything in some organisations, regardless of the skills available, because the entire culture of the organisation is almost deliberately designed to prevent anybody doing anything. So it can often be the case that introducing appropriately skilled external contractors is not just about bringing in new skills, but perhaps also about introducing people who are accustomed to getting things done, instead of simply resigning themselves to the apparent futility of trying to achieve anything ever.

Flexibility and agility are reasons often used for running projects in house, but as taxpayers, what confidence can we have that Public Sector projects will be run better - by the same teams of people who in too many cases proved unable to collect the business needs and specify a solution, for an external contractor to work to a defined cost?

Employing loads of web designers is not the solution to government IT problem. No a much more business oriented approach (Program Management) is needed, with some of those old fashioned Data Processing disciplines many of us learnt long ago and were forgotten in the age of develop it quick.


@Dunroman: Good points, but you neglect the apparently infinite capacity of public sector organisations to take good ideas and transform them into bureaucratic nightmares of inflexibility and delay.

I've worked on public sector projects that claimed to be "agile" or "business-oriented" or based on "program management", and it never made a blind bit of difference. The end result was always the same: death-by-committee, paralysis-by-analysis, suffocatingly complex "processes" to smother all progress, and an utter inability to achieve the project's goals in anything like a reasonable time frame or at a reasonable cost.

I have no idea why senior public sector managers keep deciding to adopt these practices, but I strongly suspect that if you looked hard enough you would find the fingerprints of some external business consultancy all over the alleged justification for the decision. After all, it's a highly lucrative vicious circle: public sector IT is already in crisis and unable to achieve anything (thanks to its own bureaucracy and fear of taking decisions), so the consultancies can come in and get paid a lot of taxpayer's money to create grand philosophies and complex systems to "improve" the situation. Then, when things get even worse, the same consultancies can be parachuted in as the supposed experts to fix the mess created by their own advice. Ker-ching. Meanwhile the public sector staff are both reminded of their own inadequacy and relieved of any responsibility for the consequences of their failures. And so it goes.

"The project, which could save the government 50% of its £130m publishing costs"

How? And how much does it cost?

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This page contains a single entry by Karl Flinders published on May 13, 2011 3:45 PM.

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