Local ICT sold down river

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Localism is the buzzword for the Local Government ICT Strategy. But centralisation is the modus operandi. Cuts are the impetus. Privatisation will be the outcome.

While Her Majesty's department for Communities plots devolution, local government ICT is being consolidated and stuffed into the cloud where big corporations set the rules. This is a wasted opportunity to revitalise civic Britain. 

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The draft Socitm Routemap ICT strategy and Jos Creese, the Socitm president overseeing it, claim local choice will play an important part in these reforms.

"We have never actually had a strategy and action plan for IT-enabled local public services, let alone one conceived for a citizen-driven public sector," says Creese in the blurb.

Local authorities will however have little choice but the means by which they fulfil the strategy's request for "pan-local" centralisation and assimilation into the cloud.

That much localism will be granted only because the government has no choice. Decades of IT investment is sunk in systems and contracts that cannot be scrapped overnight.

Private

So Socitm proposes regional commissioning authorities to govern local IT purchasing, much like was done in the NHS under the last government.

It's not that the regional model is especially good. It's that the ends are thought to justify the means. Because while IT is being concentrated, NHS purchasing is being devolved back out to communities again: to those all-but-private GP surgeries, which will consequently consolidate into regional and multi-national corporations.

These inverse reforms are stages of the same journey, which starts with the extraction of purchasing power from public hands, follows with its devolution back out into the private sector and concludes with private consolidation of corporate power as far from the community as it could be.

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The ends for the staff carrying out the Socitm IT reforms will purportedly be locally-defined "priority service outcomes".

But these will be overseen by Cabinet Office programme boards to ensure local outcomes are enabled by IT that is consolidated, commoditised and stuck in the cloud.

Socitm, which Creese says developed its strategy "very closely" with the Cabinet Office Efficiency and Reform Group, condemns large IT projects like the NHS National Programme for IT, to contrast its own reform plans, which it portrays as part of the government's localism agenda.

The reforms, will indeed require vigorous participation from all corners of local government. But this will not be concerned with energising the civic spirit.

It will involve root and branch homogenisation of the entire local government machine for the sole purpose of making it capable of being serviced by suppliers in the cloud.

Cultivation

As Creese told Computer Weekly, the consolidation of ICT requires the standardisation not just of systems but the working practices of those people who use them.

"There are too many hybrid adaptations of standard ways of doing things," said Creese in a telephone briefing on the proposed reforms. "You can only really join up some of our systems if you've got organisations doing things in a fairly similar fashion."

So local government will be put through a programme of "process standardisation". Local authorities have developed working processes "at the most granular level" to be the most favourable from their perspective. Those processes will have to be homogenised so they can all use the same cloud software.

This will require unprecedented collaboration between public sector organisations. It will require the sort of multi-stakeholder collaboration that created and still manages the infrastructure that defines our age: the internet.

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What a tragic waste of effort to have localism undertaken only as far as required to make UKGovITplc suppliant to whichever corporations happen to command the market for cloud services.

It is anathema to localism. And it is anathema to the open source movement whose values the government assumed to make these reforms sound palatable.

The government gained a lot of kudos from its association with open source. But is now looks like a lost opportunity. The multi-stakeholder forums required to homogenize public sector working processes are the same required to give the government's open source policy legs.

Privation

The government doesn't have the stomach for such ambitious reform. So the fate of open source policy is being left to the private sector, which is dominated by companies wedded to the idea that software is an intellectual property rather than a collaborative forum.

Take for example those two or three companies that have made a mint supplying the same benefits systems to 400 different local authorities. They may not suffer the indignity of the government's "open source software and re-use" policy, which would refuse them all but one of their 400 sales.

Neither will their public sector code be made public property - open sourced - though that is where policy was heading. These suppliers will stick their software in the cloud and apply 400 sets of service charges instead of 400 licence fees. Unless all such public code is open sourced, the Big Society love-in will be jaded somewhat by its reliance on black-box IT systems.

Let's not forget the G-Cloud idea was sold into the Cabinet Office in 2009 by a troop of Intellect members who had the most to lose from open source reforms then being introduced by Tom Watson, minister for Digital Engagement, and in the Conservatives' then nascent IT Strategy.

Both reform programmes had the open source model and ethic at their core. When George Osborne first elaborated the Conservative position in 2007, it included that crucial commitment: "Building public sector capability so that civil servants can generate real commercial leverage from open source."

Classic example

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That was the year Parliament learned of the infamous example of the National Insurance Records System Accenture produced for HM Revenue & Customs. Accenture lost its £200m contract but kept rights over this public software. It landed HMRC with a £14m licence charge as it went out the door. If HMRC didn't carry on paying, it couldn't carry on using the software. HMRC had then to beg Accenture back as a subcontractor because no-one else could fathom the NIRS2 code.

Osborne's open source initiative was to turn situations like this on their head. Suppliers would be paid for their labour. But they would be refused a monopoly over public code. HMRC or anyone else could roll their sleeves up and contribute improvements.

The tragedy is that public sector capability is being cut. Socitm's proposals involve councils dispensing of IT engineering staff when they should be playing the active part Osborne originally proposed. Instead of the Big Society we will have absolutist corporatism, in which everything has become supplicant to the corporation: public sector not as enabling, civic agency but as victual.

As the New Economics Foundation put it in its rousing 2009 essay: "Any localism which simply administers government more locally and democratically - but leaves in place the same forces of centralism and giantism in business - leaves people very little better off.

"They remain supplicants to distant boards of directors just as they were supplicants to distant government."

The open source element of the current reforms already looks doubtful. The government might make an open playing field, but software corporations prefer pigging out on software licences and cloud fees. The open source business model is too lean for them.

This is a shame because empowering workers solely for the purpose of consolidating IT suppliers is like doing lean process re-engineering without the empowerment that makes it worthwhile. It's like giving a car factory a flavour of Kaizen without any of its nutrients.

1 Comment

  • The story so far -- following the G-Digital consultation exercise*, it was agreed that:

    1. Localisation should involve next to no customisation, rather, as all public services are consolidated and centralised, they should at the same time be standardised (PDF page 5: "minimise risk from customisation by individual users", PDF page 6: "common agreement that customisation of a service must be strongly resisted"), i.e. there should be no localisation.

    2. There should be an AdServer service at the heart of the G-Digital business services (PDF page 9), an unheralded and major new departure in the ethos of public service.

    3. The Identity Assurance service (IDA), part of G-Digital, should comprise two elements, enrolment and biometrics (PDF page 9).

    Together with an unknown number of other people, someone has now received briefing papers for a meeting in a few days time to discuss IDA:

    A. All reference to biometrics has disappeared. Biometrics no longer exists even in the Cabinet Office's dreams of IDA. The snake oil salesmen of the biometrics industry have, apparently, for the moment, failed. In the place of biometrics is nothing but "biographical data", the same data that has led to there being nine million records on the National Insurance number database that no-one can account for, a problem which afflicts all large-scale databases in government and elsewhere.

    B. The briefing papers include several assertions that people should be able to control who sees what bits of their personal data and that they should be able to update their own data and correct errors, an implicit promise only ever honoured in the breach.

    C. On the one hand, the briefing papers include several assertions that the government will not maintain a central register linking the IDs provided by private sector suppliers to services provided by the public sector. Good.

    D. On the other hand, there will be audit facilities. That is emphasised. Several times. It has to be. You have to be able to answer questions like who logged on when and from where to use this or that public service, e.g. claim unemployment benefit. That log -- or database -- may supposedly be for audit purposes only but it can't help but provide a central register linking the IDs provided by private sector suppliers to services provided by the public sector. Rather a useful register, especially if you happen to have an AdServer nearby. The assertions at C above are empty.

    E. If you're going to audit access to public services, you need a certain architecture. A "hub" architecture, the Cabinet Office call it. Every attempted access goes through the hub. It has to. There has to be some one point at which the audit service can collect its data. IDA will enjoy a hub architecture.

    F. Who's paying for all this? Some people will believe the Cabinet Office claims that their implementation of cloud computing will save a fortune on existing budgets. Look at all that standardisation. And consolidation. And centralisation. Economies of scale. Procurement efficiencies. Software as a service. Time-sharing. Pay only for what you use ... A 12 year-old consultant can make that add up to huge savings. There may still be members of Amazon tribes cut off from civilisation who would fall for this. Everyone else has heard it too often to regard it as anything but deceptive background music. The Cabinet Office reserve the right to charge private sector IDA suppliers for access to useful information, e.g. yes, Mrs X does have the right to work in the UK. Taxpayers will pay. Consumers will pay. Employers will pay. There will be no savings. The quality of the service will be reduced (by standardisation). Public sector workers will pay -- they will be redundant.

    G. That's if G-Digital goes ahead. But it won't. It's got the same team behind it as Transformational Government and it provides the same guarantee of failure.

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    * https://www.wp.dh.gov.uk/gdigital/files/2011/01/G-Digital-Market-Investigation-Findings.pdf

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