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Suppliers got sweeteners in MOU deals

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Systems integrators got contract extensions in return for cutting costs in their government contracts when they did their bit for the UK austerity drive by signing memoranda of understanding with the Cabinet Office last year.

Government claimed to have won £800m-worth of concessions from suppliers after months of ball-breaking talks launched by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude with 19 large suppliers in July 2010 as part of the coalition government's cuts programme.

It has now embarked on further cost-cutting renegotiations of contracts worth tens and hundreds of millions, and sometimes billions of pounds.

Bill Crothers, Home Office commercial director, said government did use contract extensions to win concessions from suppliers. But it didn't use them as quid pro quo for suppliers who cut their contract prices.

"Several companies came in and said we will give you money in return for an extension. The minister was clear that wasn't the basis of the discussions," Crothers told Computer Weekly.

However, he said: "There were some instances where there had been some contract extensions maybe building up. They hadn't happened because there was a policy change. So the extension was pending.

"So the minister let some small extensions go for a short time and just used the fact that we needed to extend as part of the negotiation," said Crothers, who as one of the Cabinet Office's crown representatives held negotiations with six suppliers in 2010.

"There were some extensions that were smaller that we used for trade. But that wasn't the basis of negotiations. The negotiations were essentially, were there efficiencies that could be taken out," he said.

Bill Crothers.pngExtensions typically reserved as options under multi-year contracts had been suspended by the government's contracts moratorium on 24 May 2010, in which all IT spending above £1m had been frozen while Ian Watmore's newly-formed Cabinet Office Efficiency & Reform Group sorted through them for waste to cut. Six weeks later it brought those same extensions out for MOU talks with suppliers.


One government contractor who asked not to be named said: "Most had their contracts extended, so have a greater profitability. ERG agreed to extend their contracts. This £800m of cuts is all nominal. Is it all just a sham?"

John Sheppard, who as international commercial director at Logica had opened MOU negotiations with Cabinet Office, said: "They didn't see pressure to give us something in exchange. However, contracts have been extended."

He told Computer Weekly this arrangement was something other than quid pro quo. If the MOUs hadn't been signed, the Cabinet Office would still have awarded the contract extensions. The extensions weren't draughted especially for the renegotiation.

Commenting on government's latest attempt to find collaborative ways to cut ICT supplier payments further, he said it was "encouraging".

"They've noted that they've had some free gifts and now they need to accept its time for suppliers to make some money. Maybe they could be more flexible about offshoring," he said.

Logica bikini.png"The whole tenor of Crother's original approach was that we were making too much money and needed to make cuts. Now its about making cuts from the both of us," said Sheppard.

Logica last week said it would cut 1,300 jobs and a £40m hit on profits because customers had cut spending in response to the economic slump. In August it reported a six month boost in sales to £2bn on a flagging £83m profit. In February it said 2010, the year it struck its MOU, profits were up more than three-fold to £211m.

More cuts

Crothers chastised suppliers last month for not co-operating more with the government cuts programme, though its 2010 talks had been "quite a blunt instrument".

"It just took out excess margin and excessive inefficiencies. We are starting to see some examples of a much more thoughtful process but frankly if we could see more engagement from the suppliers it would be better," he said at a Cabinet Office meeting with suppliers.

"A much more considered approach would be to reduce cost, not to reduce your margin. The amount of the cost we spend on some of these major SI situations is excessive. If we can reduce the cost then you can take higher margin and we would still be happy," he said.

Crothers later told Computer Weekly: "I think the penny's dropped. Not all but some of the suppliers initially reacted with resistance. But pretty much all have realised that the leadership from the top has sustained and they have realised its not going away.

"We have seen reduction in costs. Either a reduction in margins or a reduction in total costs. I think it needs to continue though. But rather on the basis of taking out margin, it would be better if it was a re-framing of the activity. So the activity was costing less to the supplier as well as us," he said.

Cabinet Office was unavailable for comment.

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. 

Jos Cresse edit.png
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.


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.

Local ICT Routemap Programme Boards.png
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.


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.

Get in line.jpg
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.


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

Mr Creosote.png
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.

Radical plan to cut Local Gov.IT

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The draft local government IT strategy has sketched out the beginning of the end for public sector IT.

It's authors may say it is merely a beginning. But these things are certain: it proposes a programme of radical and disruptive change; it is not going to be easy; and this is a taste of things to come in the long-awaited Cabinet Office ICT strategy.

There will still be IT in the public sector. But much less of it will be public.

Half of all local government IT services will be outsourced by 2015. Councils will employ few if any programmers and engineers. Public sector IT will become commoditised and delivered through the cloud. Local autonomy will largely involve IT managers picking services from a menu.

The government's Big Society reforms will be the cause of all this. Local public services will be at the "eye of the storm", warns Routemap 2015, the draft local IT strategy, which is open for consultation until 4 April. The government's "unprecedented" cuts have created a need for "unprecedented" reform. The changes to council IT will be "radical".

Jos Creese.pngDespite all this, Jos Creese, president of Socitm, chair of the Local CIO Council and the man under whose tutelage these reforms were draughted, says these changes will be locally driven.

The key message for local IT managers, he told Computer Weekly, is "in your own time and in your own way".

The direction of travel has nevertheless been predetermined by irresistible trends on which central government cuts are a powerful catalyst. Networked citizens have high expectations of digital services. Professionals have realised that open data, open standards and transparency are incontestable requirements of the networked age. Digital innovation, joined up services, citizen-centricity and wide collaboration are all emerging quite naturally as every possible actor, from public and private entities to all kinds of people, are thrust into ever greater immediacy by the internet.

What is happening to local government is a form of coagulation. But it is happening slowly. It relies on internet infrastructure, so it must wait until local authorities have finished building their bits of the Public Sector Network, and the public sector as a whole has established a competent way of formulating open standards of interoperability.

Creese and the Society of IT Managers make much of how inappropriate it would be for the government drive all this through as a central IT programme. Creese says the past failure of government IT projects can be attributed to their being "too centrally driven". But Routemap 2015 is a centrally-driven policy that recommends central bodies be established to oversee the centralisation of local IT services.


Yes, says Creese from his Hampshire CIO office during a rare slot between meetings, its not like any sort of centralisation we've had before.

"If we get this right," he says, "you will end up with the PSN being a national network of networks. You will get a whole range of private clouds that begin to link together. If appropriate, they will join bigger and more centralised entities.

"But you will get there on a more organic and therefore more enduring basis than simply trying to drive it all on a theoretic basis from the centre," he says.

Bottom up centralisation, you might say. One that will involve dismantling much of the public sector, which is what Routemap 2015 proposes for local IT departments. This is not necessarily a condition of a networked society in which public and private entities operate in closer union, glued together by open data and an assumed civic spirit.

Creese says, therefore, local IT departments might need an incentive to get with the programme. Cuts in central government funding are the primary incentive. They're centrally driven. And dreadfully untheoretical.


Then there are the "outcomes", or targets, of this reform programme. They set Routemap 2015's idealistic incentive: "Efficiency and fairness".

Whatever happened to equality? This principle must be more important than ever now huge chunks of local government are being privatized. What will preserve the balance between public service and private profit?

This isn't about "grand plans to make a world a better place", says Creese. It's about being practical. It's about using technology to get things done. IT-enabled change. Putting the citizen in control.

"That's what this is about.

"We want to strike a balance between something that is prescriptive and something that is so esoteric it is purely setting a context and not adding anything directly usable to the debate," he says.

No airy-fairy words like equality then. What we have are "efficiency", the local corollary of central cuts, and "fairness", a Conservative election mantra. While the reforms are often given a veneer that makes them seem apolitical they are driven by policy that is as grandly and theoretically Conservative as a country title.

How IT enabled-change can be fair without ensuring equality is not a concern of these reforms. Now IT is not merely the department at the end of the corridor but the enabler of the Big Society, someone may have to pay some thought to the higher ideals.

Parliament mulls Hansard for YouTube

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Proposed Hansard YouTube System Diagram.png

Techies in the Houses of Parliament are considering plans that would see parliamentary debates posted on YouTube.

The proposal is one of three options being considered by the Parliamentary Information Communication and Technology Office (Pict) to distribute video recordings of Parliamentary debates to a wider audience.

The Broadcast Improvement Plan, which is under review until the summer, will seek to widen the audience reach of Parliamentary videos by breaking technical restrictions imposed by the proprietary video software of vendors such as Microsoft, which supplies the software Parliament currently uses to distribute its video on the web.

The plans, obtained by Computer Weekly, describe YouTube as by far the cheapest option, and was modeled on Prime Minister David Cameron's relationship with FaceBook.

"This approach could be seen [as] wise stewardship of financial resources and in line with Number 10's recent partnership with FaceBook," said Pict in its outline of the proposal.

Putting parliamentary debates on YouTube would take 18-22 man days for IT developers. The alternative of pursuing Pict's objectives using its current Microsoft system would take about four times as long, at 81 days. Pict's preferred plan, developing a dedicated application interface and moving to open standards, would take 111 days.

<View Full-size system diagram of the YouTube plan>

DirectGov spunks £200m

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Has DirectGov really spent £200m producing websites, Jerry Fishenden, LSE fop, former Microsoft suit, and general man about town, asked last year.

Since Fishenden had asked the question via Twitter of Sir Bonar-Neville Kingdom, the ostensible Data Sharing Czar of Her Majesty's government, we have to wonder whether whether standards might be slipping at the London School of Economics. Or whether, as Sir Bonar has himself remarked, Autumn 2009 was a particularly good season for mushrooms. 

Nevertheless, it was this week that Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude pledged an historic review of the government's web site estate. It's historic in the sense that we never had so many websites to scrap before.

We've already seen DirectGov's top brass cleared out. This is but the beginning. To mark the occasion, it would be worthless republishing Tweets written on the matter by Sir Bonar, HM Government's first official Twit. That's why we're doing it here.

His Tweets, it is whispered around the fagging sheds outside the corridors of power, have had civil servants squirming in their seats.

"I have no doubt the £66m spend by the DoH in the last three years on two of its Web Sites is excellent Value for Money."

"We will further improve the DoH Web Sites by getting rid of most of them. This will be a great improvement."

"We feel Transform's DirectGov report represents fair value for what we paid them."

"The confirmation of DirectGov's central role as government's Web Publishing Platform in the Transform report is uncontentious."

"Incidentally, we are rebranding Directgov as "DirectGov" to give it a more comtempory feel."

"Now we can recommission these absurdly cheap MySociety Web Sites from proper suppliers like IBM, ATOS and Qinetic."

"One could hardly sustain an indigenous IT industry on the unrealistic budgets bandied about by these NGOs. We need serious Web Sites."

"I feel we should shut down Google and use DirectGov and a national email service. As I recall CESG developed one..."

"Clearly we need a Government Search Engine. We could call it"

"The UK's flagship Web Site Direct Gov is still looking for a head of innovation. Please apply by last August."

"I have a splendid idea: let's dust down that old promise to put all public services online. It always works!".

"We must be seen to be active. Let us launch official versions of things which people are successfully doing already!"

"We should promote democracy with a web site. We could call it"

"Let's promote the government agenda for mothers with a website, called both and, just to be sure."

"We must ensure that any feedback about Health Services comes from authorized sources via an approved contractor such as capita."

"In light of the irresponsibility of the news media we propose a new Government Newspaper. We plan to call it"

Sir Bonar has published Tweets in a book, at the launch of which he gave a rather tedious speech you can watch here.

Open data sop or not

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If all public information is public and anyone can do what they like with it then...

"You don't need us," concluded one local authority executive at Socitm's 2010 conference in Brighton last month.

Is the public sector really sowing the seeds of its own demise with the open data initiative?

Like a swimming pool with no sides, if you let it all go free it may just all go: snapped up by precocious little bands of XML nerds and sold on as a profitable service to those citizens who can afford to pay for it.

In old bureaucratic Britain, public data belonged to everyone but was accessible to none. Soon it will be accessible to all but decipherable only by those who like to play with data analysis tools in their spare time.

That's the fear: that the transparency agenda will transform the periphery of government, while the centre of power retains its confidentiality and therefore integrity. That the open data revolution, with its publication of contracts and right to public data sets, will indeed improve accountability, but not as much as it nourishes the private sector.

The result may be a powerful centre and a private periphery. Let's not forget that local authorities may have schools and police forces snatched from them too. Devolution it is, but where to?

Smash the establishment

This poses an existential problem for those agencies that live from the sale of repurposed data. The Ordnance Survey and Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy are two that have come under the open data spotlight, and for whom free data may mean burst borders.

Still, you can't have a revolution without breaking some heads. The BBC, for example, is a national treasure, but its archive is public and should be free for all who have a TV licence, while rights holders and stars should say farewell to upper-middle-class luxuries, trumped up circus performers that they are. Their privileges are simply unsustainable in a networked world.

More prosaically, Dane Wright, the Brent Council IT strategy manager at the vanguard of these changes, believes open data will lead to the demise not of the public sector but merely to some of its activities.

Deloitte gave an inkling of what will be first for the chop in a report for Leicester County Council last year. It had the equivalent of 92 staff employed at a cost of £3.7m a year managing 3,000 datasets designed to satisfy central government demands. These functions will be consolidated and shared, their job will be to simply manage a plantation of data sources. The data free-for-all-will also clear much of the impenetrable jungle of public websites and the staff who manage them as well.

Sack the IT dept.

Perhaps those ICT staff sacked as open data inefficiencies will form mutuals to repurpose the data they used to work so hard to keep private for public bodies.

Matters will be complicated when the coalition's Local Government Bill gives councils free reign to compete with private companies.

Yet even though free data will eventually not be free but traded, this sour interpretation of the initiative belies its undeniable and vigorous optimism. It is a liberation, after all.

It may have looked like Tory opportunism, but the possibility that private companies will be forced to open their data when they work on public projects is the surest sign yet that the open data movement's higher ideals have survived its adoption by government.

Someone must now clarify exactly what in this androgynous world will be private but public. That is, what the public can claim a right to without getting screwed.

Papers please!

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The House of Lords has been scrapping Identity Cards this last fortnight. Sort of.

It's not simply a matter of "scrap the ID scheme", as the coalition government promised. It's like one of those magic tricks: the Identity Documents Bill will make ID cards vanish but - tadaah! - the government will still be holding the powers that made them so objectionable in the first place.

This ID scrapping bill won't be enough "to stop the development of a 'papers please' culture in Britain," says No2ID in its brief on the legislation.

That 'papers please culture is the one in which bus conductors have been replaced with revenue inspectors. It's the one in which a jolly whistle and the ting-ting! report of a portable ticket machine have been replaced with the hiss of a walkie talkie and the rustle of bomber jackets as they huddle round.

No2ID takes particular offence at how the ConDem's ID legislation will make it a criminal offence with up to 10 years imprisonment to try and carry off a false ID.

There are no end of reasons why someone might justifiably goof some busybody official into thinking they are someone they are not. They might want to send Transport for London's heavies the the wrong way for a start.

Or they might want to get lashed before they are 18. No2ID reckons the last government lost no time in seconding its terrorist-nabbing ID legislation to the task of bagging underage drinkers.

Yet the strangest thing about the ConDem's ID Doc's Bill are in is its Clause 10. And they are its data sharing powers. The ConDem's will with this bill introduce a wide power for linking disparate data sources to passport records, to keep them for police intelligence and to extend them at the home secretary's discretion. Just the sort of powers they protested about in opposition.

IBM will meanwhile continue operating the stump of the ID system, the National Biometric Identity Service (NBIS) database, as a database of foreigners. Liberty notes rather politely the "divisive and objectionable" fact foreigners will still have to carry ID cards in Britain.

It as though the nation has forgotten the plot to The Great Escape, though it is possibly the most replayed movie in history.

Not that you can compare British officials to Nazi commandants. The ID Docs Bill doesn't give them the power to take you into the woods to have you shot if you have the wrong papers. They will merely have the power to send you to prison for 10 years.

Transparency arranged in secret

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Fancy that. Francis Maude's open data revolution is being conducted in secret. That's fine. Everyone knows power can be handed to the people only once the battle is won on their behalf.

The stakes are too high and all that. We trust in the meantime that the revolutionary council will work in our best and not their own vested interests.

There are in fact two revolutionary councils. The CIO Council and CTO Council. These are the Cabinet Office boards on which sit the overpaid nobbins who gave us such wonders as the NHS National Programme for IT, the Child Support Agency and the Identity Cards Scheme.

They'll have plenty to cock up under the ConDem's as well. Besides the open data revolution, we've got the promise of more gargantuan gaffs like the Universal Credit Scheme and Interception Modernisation Programme.

Don't be deceived by their bad suits and Coldplay concert tickets. These CIOs call the shots. Thus your humble correspondent has on innumerable occasions over the last five years asked the Cabinet Office for a calendar, agendas and minutes of their meetings.

They don't normally bother replying. But Maude has really got his staff swinging to his transparency number. So they sent a refusal instead of implying it. There's a progressive government for you.

"It looks like this information is no-longer posted up on our website," said a Cabinet Office press officer in an email today. No sheet, Sherlock.

The information was apparently on its website for a moment in early 2009 after Ian Cuddy, then chief agitator at Public Sector Forums, was reduced to using a Freedom of Information request to get it. It was promptly removed so the CIOs could go back to their public bodging in private.

"But you can get access to it by putting in a FOI request," the Cabinet Office press office concluded in its email today.

Out of order

The National Archives have no record of the minutes the Cabinet Office published in answer to Cuddy's 2009 request, even though it recorded what there was of the CIO Council section of the Cabinet Office website on 5 Jan 2009 (two months before the Cabinet Office answered Cuddy's request) and 9 April (a fortnight later). The site was only ever a publicity tool anyway.

Remember how barely four weeks ago Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude told the Conservative Party Conference that "citizens...are entitled to expect the state to be open with them"?

He spoke in the great tradition of empty rhetoric of which our ConDem government is proving so adept. Hark back to the exhilaration of the coalition's founding statement on transparency.

"We will extend transparency to every area of public life," it said.

"The Government believes that we need to throw open the doors of public bodies, to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account. We also recognize that this will help to deliver better value for money in public spending, and help us achieve our aim of cutting the record deficit."

Fine words. But the coalition's policy commitments amounted to little more than a bit of tinkering and the open data sop, to which we shall return.

Out of fashion

The CIO Councils are meanwhile getting on with the job they appointed themselves to do in 2005, at the start of New Labour's five-year programme of Transformational Government: wasting billions, replacing jobs with computers and frightening the horses with Big Brother spookiness.

Think of the lives ruined by the CSA shambles. Etc. And ponder what is the legacy of this secretive boys club once you dismiss the cock-ups. Can it be little more than a bunch of websites and databases, a few hundred thousand personal computers loaded with Microsoft software and a cabal of large suppliers fattened on cushy outsourcing contracts?

Your guess is as good as anyones.

At least John Suffolk, the government CIO and grand master of the CIO Lodge, has got the new spirit of openness. He has a blog.

Council CRM to console Osborne's unemployed

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Never before has IT has played such an important role in budgetary affairs as in austerity Britain.

How else could we hope to sack a million workers, ask those few still with jobs to do thrice as much, and then watch everyone very closely for the first signs of dissent? Surely, the CIO's day has truly come!

Our aristocratic Chancellor's Spending Review did initially sound like a load of hogwash. As though we could really expect the private sector to fill the civic void left by £81bn of public spending cuts, and not merely profit as luxuriously as possible on the backs of the chumps it employs on poverty wages to nurse the sores of other chumps it already worked to the bone.

What the IT community made of all this sounded like hokum too. IT, you see, will enable government to improve services even as it cuts costs. It's like saying you can have a fat-free Chocolate E'Claire.

What on earth can they mean? It can't be the G-Cloud. That does promise to miraculously cut costs while improving services. But it's years from reality. It's as far away as the end of the rainbow for all austerity Britain may care.

It's not shared services either. Councils will huddle. But they will combine their services about as energetically as a mating herd of heffalump: one copulation is a probability, a threesome quite a contortion, but an orgy is just wishful thinking. 

Different cladding

All that leaves is what we had already, only with a different colour rosette. The ConDem cuts will put the finishing touches to Labour's e-government and Transformational Government programmes, which will mean more back-office consolidation, outsourcing, job cuts, CRM systems and interactive websites.

That's the vision: lots of unemployed people being quieted very efficiently by the computers that put them out of work.

Those staff left on the public payroll will be given handheld computers that tell them more efficiently what their outsourcing contract stipulates is more than their job's worth. The hand-held computer says no.

And after all the Conservative hoopla about an end to Soviet-era IT projects, the Chancellor promised £2bn for the DWP to create a system of Universal Credit.

Same old story

The more governments change, the more they stay the same. If there were any doubt about this, consider Labour's Interception Modernisation Programme. The coalition government promised it would run no such Big Brother project to retain records of everyone's emails, telephone calls and web activity. They were phony assurances.

Aside from shameless poverty, the dynamic new, new Britain will have one crucial difference. That is the release of tens of thousands of prisoners onto destitute streets: Blair's chickens come home to roost.

Osborne's promised repurposing of police funds from bobbies to technology may ensure there are drones enough to watch they don't land right back in the slammer when they discover what few opportunities there are for honest graft.

If only there were more money to go round. We might have technology and jobs. As members of the Birmingham chapel of the Public and Commercial Services Union remarked on hearing the news that the Queen was having her pay frozen for a year: "It's two years for the rest of us"!

Moronic networks bolster local CIOs

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Since the Big Society is the logical consequence of the networked society, it follows also that local government CIOs are among the best placed to make it happen.

That may be like giving Dilbert the keys to the city. But the big society will only work if local computing infrastructure is opened up. There is little community of the sort we romanticize about in coalition manifestos bar what can be bought or computer assisted. We have to give Dilbert the keys to the city.

Local CIOs are therefore being recruited as evangelists for the new wave, it became apparent at Socitm 2010, their annual conference in Brighton this week. They have the know-how. They are also among the few with instincts attuned to the principles of the internet politics.

Let's assume for the moment the ConDem government has principles. Look for their roots and you will find them in Silicon Valley.

That's where, remember, were formed the architectural principles that made the internet what it is: the centre devoid of intelligence, all processing done at the end points and not on the network, and common protocols assisting the free flow of information - the very nutrients of liberty, innovation, and pompous blogging.

This also happens to be the architectural blueprint of the Big Society. Not the Big Society you're thinking of. Forget arthritic old ladies who have taken half a day getting dressed ever since budget cuts sent their home-help to the doll queue. Forget rain clouds over Birmingham and the Boys from the Black Stuff.

Think Californian sunshine, ashrams full of baby boomers, roller skates and network technology. And remember that most of the bedding for this Big Society lark was laid by, under or despite of Labour. Think, for example, how we can now have no doubt that the centre is devoid of intelligence.

Labour did also co-opt Web founder Tim Berners-Lee's work on setting public sector data free so anyone could see or use it. And it started laying the communications infrastructure over which the public and third sectors will soon work more closely under the ConDem Coalition. Ditto the G-Cloud and open standards.

More freedom

But there's a significant difference between the ConDem and Labour flavours of internet politics.  That's performance management, a phrase as dreaded by internet techies as civil servants. Look up net neutrality to see what all the fuss is about among the former.

The principle dread is the same in both cases. It's "the terror of the unannounced inspection", as Rob Whiteman, managing director of LG Group, described it in Brighton on Monday.

Whiteman was relieved at the ideological shift in the governance of local government under the ConDems. Out go the old hierarchical performance measures, which had councils working hard to please their superiors to the detriment of their locales. In comes local accountability and the transparency that makes it possible.

In comes "peer review", as Whiteman said. Or trabajo de equipo, as rescued Chilean miners might call it. Or solidaridad. That's what the internet politics is all about. Peer review is how the internet is governed through ICANN. It's how open source software is developed. It's how social networks police themselves.

Less money

But don't set the black fag flying just yet. Because as the Roma said to the gendarme, peer review isn't all its cracked up to be.

Peer review is how democracy is supposed to work. But what we are seeing of the internet society so far won't extend further than civil society. And what is freed up in civil society may just go straight into the money-making engines of unaccountable private enterprises.

For now, consider what former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Lord Blair said to CIOs about this: we have heard how the public sector is "bloated, gold plated, and out of touch" - that's how the current bout of public sector pollarding was sold to us; but what about the bankers?

Still, you've got to start somewhere. If the internet politics does take hold in local government then, as people in ashrams are taught to believe,  it may bring about a bottom up revolution. Quangos are an encouraging next step.

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