Tories are slippery on committing to Government IT reform

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Francis Maude is likely to be the man who's responsible for reforming Government IT if the Conservatives win the next general election. He's now Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office.

When he kindly agreed to my requests for an interview he knew he'd be asked about a paper on Government IT reform that the Conservatives had published in December 2009.

For me the big unanswered questions were: would the Tories would commit unequivocally to implement change? Or would they merely express an intention to implement change and, if they won power, quietly drop their plans in the face of opposition from Sir Humphrey?

The interview with Maude went as expected though: he was articulate and personable; and he committed the Conservatives to nothing.

If anything he affirmed the wisdom of political columnist George Will who said that the most important four words in politics are "up to a point".

So where do the Tories now stand on an IT reform of Government? I am not certain; and neither, it seems, are they.

Why don't the Tories announce their IT reform plans on their homepage?

On a website "Make IT Better" are some strong statements on IT reform. In tiny print at the bottom of the website are the words "promoted on behalf of the Conservatives".

I asked Conservative Central Central Office whether Make IT Better was definitely a Conservative website. The spokesman was defensive. "Why are you asking?" Eventually he gave an assurance that "Make IT Better" was a Conservative website.

Tory proposals on the website are far-reaching

These are the "draft proposals" on the Make IT better website, under the heading Delivering Change:
 
-     "impose a moratorium on existing and upcoming procurements ..."

-    Strengthen the central role of CIOs, giving them "greater responsibility for the effective management and delivery of projects".  

-    Immediately establish a presumption that ICT projects should not exceed £100m in total value

-    Build a register of ICT-related assets across Government including intellectual property rights, so that taxpayers do not pay for material they already own.

-    Expect that senior responsible owners will remain in that role for the life of the project. So that this doesn't hold back careers, SROs may be promoted in post while running a large project.

-    Minimise changes to contracts. "It is well known in the industry that much of a supplier's margin is made from client changes to the original specification," say the Tories.

-    Publish centrally online Gateway Reviews when they are produced, and allow the public to scrutinise the value and progress of a project.

-    Publish all ICT contracts. "We are sceptical that the requirements of commercial confidentiality genuinely justify the secrecy that surrounds these contracts."

-    Scrap failing projects. "There are several expensive ICT systems in various parts of Whitehall which had become redundant well before their completion, and which sit unused. They should have been given a decent burial well before completion. The abandonment of a project, however justified, tends to be seen as an admission of failure. Much better to save the money and scrap the project."

-    Encourage the use of Open Source software. "When a government department, agency or Quango asks a vendor to write new code for a bespoke solution it will expect to require that this code is made available under an open-source license. This is to decrease the cost of reusing code [and] to prevent gold-plating and to promote innovation ..."

-    Where open-source options are inferior, assess whether it is worth paying a third party to upgrade an open source solution rather than buy proprietary software.

-    Provide more opportunities for smaller, UK-based suppliers

-    Ask Senior Responsible Owners to publish their plans online via low-cost platforms such as blogs.

-    Re-design the NHS IT scheme, NPfIT, and give patients more control of their medical records

-    Review big databases, and scrap ID Cards and ContactPoint.

-    Publish in a standardised and open format "every item of spending over £25,000, enabling the public to see for the first time exactly how and where the government is spending their money".

-    Require local councils to publish online details of all expenditure over £1,000.

-    Introduce a new "right to government data" so that the public can receive government datasets containing anonymised information that may be socially or commercially useful.

-    throw open the policy-making process to "crowd-sourcing and collaborative design".

**

Yes but is the list Conservative policy or mere good intention? 

It's an impressive list. I asked Conservative Central Office whether it represents a set of proposals or party policy. A spokesman replied:

"The summary of proposals on the website is official policy."

So they're proposals, not official policy?

"Policy" came the reply.

Then I interviewed Francis Maude MP, the Conservative Shadow Cabinet Office Minister. He said the proposals are proposals.

"It [the Delivering Change paper] is for consultation at the moment. We will consider the feedback and take account of that. These certainly represent our current intentions," he said.

I pointed out that Conservative Central Office had said the paper represented policy.

"We have expressed it as a consultative paper. These [proposals] represent well thought out intentions. If people were to raise compelling reasons why we should do something different we would obviously listen to that."   

So the proposals are subject to change?

"It's only very stupid people who refuse to listen to compelling arguments. This paper is already the product of widespread discussion and consultation. Our expectation is that we will implement what we set out there but we don't have dogmatically closed minds.

"There will no doubt be other things that people suggest that we will want to add to this."

These are our stated intentions

So the proposals are far from being policy?

"We are dancing on the head of a pin...Our expectation is that these will be our policies. These are our stated intentions."  

I said that the proposals to publish Gateway reviews and IT contracts may be opposed by civil servants if the Conservatives get into power. When then?

"Obviously we will listen to views that are expressed but our expectation is that [Gateway reviews and IT contracts] will be published. There would need to be an overwhelmingly compelling reason for not doing it. Transparency is the friend to the taxpayer."

Maude added: "I would be surprised if [Gateway reviewers] felt that, when they were looking at value for money, they would be inhibited from telling the truth by the fact that [the reviews] were to be open to public scrutiny.

"This is not about policy-making. This is about: are things being run well? Is this on track? Is it delivering value for money? Is it going to meet the budget and timetable? I would be surprised if people were going to less frank about things like that."

Would you over-ride civil servants who objected to your publishing Gateway reviews and IT contracts?

"They would need to make a particularly compelling case against transparency. Our expectation is that these would be published."

While they are still up to date?

"Yes."

And you would have a moratorium on existing and future procurements?

"I am not aware of any procurements that are around at the moment that are so time- sensitive. They work on an incredibly slow basis anyway compared with other countries. I would be astonished if there was any procurement that was so time sensitive that a moratorium to examine it to see whether it meets our requirements was fatal."

You have a presumption of a £100m limit on IT projects and programmes?

"It is not a rigid limit. It is a presumption that as a rule projects should be smaller than £100m because the bigger the size the bigger the risk and the bigger the power of a few suppliers."

Will you definitely scrap ID Cards even if the technology for ID Cards is interwoven with biometric passports?

"We are utterly committed to scrapping ID Cards. It [the technology] is all very opaque at the moment. It's been very difficult to get details of what has been done on what. We will need to look at all the contracts.

"We are assuming that this government would not have been so reckless as to commit when they know that a possible incoming government would stop the programme."

So you won't let Sir Humphrey get his way when rejects your proposals?

"I will always listen to arguments and advice. It doesn't mean we will always follow advice.

"Ministers decide things. While you want to listen to advice, ministers are there to make decisions."    

Would you agree that the Conservatives have good intentions when it comes to reforming Government IT but there's nothing you're committed to doing?

"I am willing for us to be judged on what we do in practice. Any opposition is working on imperfect information by definition and at the end of it we need to be judged on what we actually do."

**

Let me spell this out - Conservative Central Office spokesman


After the interview I asked Conservative Central Office why it had assured me that the Make IT Better website's "Delivering Change" paper was policy when Francis Maude had said it was consultative and subject to change and additions.

The spokesman insisted that the proposals were party policy.  

"Let me spell this out," he said. "You are aware of how Parliament works with green papers. These are policy proposals, ie the £100m limit on IT projects and the moratorium on up and coming projects will be in our manifesto.

"It is policy but we will take suggestions from the public. Therefore it is factually correct to say that this is policy at this time and place. It's for consultation but it's still policy....These are Conservative proposals. These issues will be spelt out in the manifesto and in our campaign guide...Our intention is to set out and implement these policies if we are lucky enough to get into power."

And if you get into power and don't implement any of the policy proposals, can we hold you to account on the basis that you promised you would make these changes?

"You are creating words that have never been said," replied the spokesman.

**

So now we know. The Conservatives are ready to radically reform Government IT... perhaps ... up to a point.  

Links:

Tories pledge radical reform of Government IT - ComputerWeekly.com

Shake-up of Government IT likely in Tory manifesto - ComputerWeekly.com

4 Comments

  • Good article, but harsh headline.

    With a subject like this, what more can a political party do - especially one in opposition? The Conservatives are saying that they really, really, really want to do something, but in the event that a new dramatic piece of evidence comes up, they may have to alter plans a bit.

    That's fair enough isn't it?

  • Yes the headline was harsh. It's easy in opposition to make promises that are not, when looked at with hindsight, commitments.

    I cannot fault the Conservative's list of promises. But it's difficult to envisage the Treasury's Office of Government Commerce allowing any minister - Labour or Conservative - publishing up-to-date Gateway reviews or all IT contracts.

    The OGC will probably put up affectedly reasonable arguments against openness which ministers find difficult to resist.

    If the Conservatives committed to the changes they'd be more likely to over-rule the civil servants. They'd know that if they didn't carry out their firm promises their critics would accuse them of a U-turn.

    That's why I was looking for the Conservatives to commit themselves, and not simply express a desire to implement.

    Even in opposition they could make an unequivocal commitment to publish up-to-date Gateway reviews and publish IT contracts.

    Then there would be a strong possibility we really would get some reform of Government IT.

  • "The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) is an independent office of HM Treasury, established to help Government deliver best value from its spending." http://www.ogc.gov.uk/

    The only independent bodies involved with Government project reviews are in my opinion the NAO and the Public Accounts Committee. They are the institutional equivalent of the old-fashioned coroner, picking over the unfortunate remains of yet another failed IT project. Although we will eventually find out what the cause of death was it's all far too late to ressurect what could have been a sound project in principle, and usually everyone else has already undergone the grieving process and moved on with their lives. What we really need are a few paramedics running about Government, highlighting where they are hemorrhaging bad project funds and administering first aid, CPR or even dare I say it, the last rites. I can't see the OGC commiting to that sort of openness.


  • Definitely not the OGC. It employs some good people but the organisation has a defensiveness and introspection which parodies even Sir Humphrey's. Much more external scrutiny of IT projects and programmes is needed, which is anathema to the OGC. David Cameron is due to announce today that the Tories will publish all contracts over £25,000 - which would be a step forward.

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