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CSC chief declares exit after scandalous year

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Michael Laphen - CSC CEO.png
CSC chief Michael Laphen announced his retirement today after a year of unresolved scandals.

His statement followed reports of the resignation yesterday Carsten Lind, CEO of CSC Denmark, the centre of an accounting scandal that caused the Securities and Exchange Commission, the US competition watchdog, to launch an investigation in February.

Laphen said CSC management had got the $16bn company on a solid footing. "I am confident that the company is well positioned for its next phase of growth and development," he said.

CSC followed the regulatory probe by sacking or accepting resignations from half its Nordic finance staff. It was simultaneously in a legal dispute over its unfulfilled £2.9bn contract under the UK NHS National Programme for IT. The ongoing delays led it to repay the NHS £170m two weeks ago. It meanwhile faces shareholder lawsuit in the US.

It has also been shaken by spending cuts by the US government, its largest customer. The US public sector accounts for 37 per cent of its business, most of it from the Department of Defence. CSC forecasts predict a return to growth in public sector business next year. The company's troubles have led to talk of a break-up or take-over among some City watchers.

Its share price had plummeted 40 per cent in the last year but rebounded briefly today on the news of Laphen's retirement.

60-year old Laphen became chairman, president and CEO in 2007 after 30 years at the company. He presided over a shake-up that led to nine of CSC's 10 executive directors being replaced, six of them last year. Vice president and controller Donald DeBuck is the only surviving executive who predates Laphen's taking command. Both were appointed executives in 2001, Laphen serving as president and chief operating officer. DeBuck served in various positions including temporary finance chief.

CSC's revenue has remained flat for the last four years. It booked $14bn of new business in the last year. Its operating margin has been squeezed to below 7 per cent. It has been increasing its offshore business to counter cut-price overseas competition. But it maintains that its competitive advantage lies in sustaining its longtstanding strategy: providing broad-base, big-ticket IT services and software to big-ticket sectors. It has advanced its cloud services to this end, earning a commendation from KPMG.

Doom clouds gather over parliamentary IT hearing

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A couple of the great mandarins of government IT got top billing at the Parliamentary inquiry into computing last week. They set a gloomy scene for the government's forthcoming IT strategy, which CW anticipates will be published on Wednesday.

They were upstaged by a bunch of small town IT directors who chirped on about the information policy principles everybody expects to become formal policy, and which they claim to be adopting already: small, agile, open, interoperable, entrepreneurial.

Goverment CIO Holds Court at the PASC - edit - 22 March 2011.pngIt was tempting to think of this as the Old Guard's last gasp. It was a horrible sight.

Joe Harley, government CIO and chief of IT at the Department for Work and Pensions, and Phil Pavitt, CIO at the megalithic HM Revenue and Customs, lumbered on about how well their multi-billion pound contracts were performing, using PR-approved factoids that ticked all the faddish boxes.

They showed just how deep the IT establishment is dug into these most powerful departments of state and propped up the 10-year, multi-billion pound alliances it has with the large IT suppliers. The government might not have machinery big enough to shift them.

It looked awful for government policy, awful for the open source movement that has driven its reforming bent and awful, paradoxically, for the neo-Labour movement these old boys represent: a lose-lose situation the extent of which is hidden by confidentiality clauses from all but a chosen few.

Big Society ITopia

It had all looked bright and breezy as the Public Administration Select Committee's inquiry into government IT set into its third week.

Three local government IT chiefs cheerily extolled the virtues of an IT ecosystem modeled not on power hierarchies but on the networked society.

Socialization - Solidarity - Humanity.pngTheir ideology makes the Big Society sound desirable as well as possible, if only it wasn't also used as an excuse to slash and burn public services.

The idea is that interoperable computer systems and open data will form a "backbone", or "glue", or "WD40" on which it is possible to imagine civic Britain as the primordial soup, humming with evolutionary potential, bustling with community co-operatives and do-gooding corporations.

This take on the Big Society vision has become so irrefutable it even has Marxist academics praising the health-giving properties of free-forming, quasi-capitalist societies.

That's what Professor David Harvey told BBC's Hard Talk when he published a book on the subject last year.

Homogeneity was losing favour with the left as well as the right. Diverse, decentralised, self-deterministic communities had proven their worth, Harvey told the Beeb's Sarah Montague.

"Utopia is about continuous change," he said. "Human beings are astonishingly creative. Capitalism has got to the point where its not using that any more."

What crippling contradiction it can cause, to be so transported when such ideas are presented by executives from Tory councils among those most zealously making the public service cuts being used to force through these reforms.

While we hear persuasive chatter from the likes of Mark Adams-Wright, chief information officer of Suffolk, the "virtual" county council, and David Wilde, the CIO at Westminster City, the Old Guard lets the side down. The IT establishment hasn't got a reason why. It doesn't have an ideology. It doesn't even have a spiel that can justify its ugly great contracts.

Kelvin Hopkins MP.pngIt's left to PASC members like Kelvin Hopkins, Labour MP for Luton North, to meet these upstarts in debate.

Watkins pelted them: outsourced public services in places like Westminster are supposed to be "wonderful", he said. But they're not.

Then IT suppliers bamboozle public bodies and charge them outrageous fees, he said.

And what about private care homes, he said, which are dreadful despite being propped up with public subsidies?

Universal credit

The Big Society ITerati doesn't have answers to questions like this. Neither did Professor Harvey, funnily enough.

The Old Guard at least has big IT contracts, and we haven't seen the last of them, for all the talk we've heard from Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude.

Most of Universal Credit, the coalition's first gargantuan IT project, was already being shoed into existing contracts with large suppliers without an open competition, the Old Guard told the Committee.

They didn't say why, or how. But Malcolm Whitehouse, group applications director for the DWP said something about how important it was to keep the same people on because they knew the ropes. African dictators are fond of that excuse.

CIO Harley claimed the government had learned its lesson from past IT failures, before trotting out a list of things he was doing to make his multi-billion pound IT contracts more palatable.

The committee heard earlier how 400 benefits systems in local government were serviced by just two or three suppliers.

Storm Clouds.pngBad omen

Socitm has been warning that the large government departments will block the Big Society reforms.

And so it seems the Cabinet Office IT strategy may be forced into a fudge with the very IT oligarchy it has been chipping at for the last six months.

So Pavitt said HMRC liked this idea that government IT systems might be broken up into smaller, interoperable components.

But he said it would be "foolish" to break up HMRC's existing system. It handled £435bn of tax and transacted with the DWP 3bn times-a-year.

It is also locked into a 13-year, £8.5bn contract with Capgemini.

Pavitt trotted out some tired old marketing slogans to shore this Aspire contract up in front of the Committee. It will have cut £1bn from HRMC's IT costs by the time it terminates in 2017, he said. It has even built an open source website.

No matter that the work was only meant to cost £3bn when it was contracted in 2004. Nor that its three year-extension from 2014 is to cost as much as the contract is supposed to have saved over its life.

Nor that HMRC will likely to have no choice but to grant another five-year trigger-extension in 2017. The deal is so uncompetitive HRMC had to pay Capgemini and others nearly £52m to take it on.

It's so uncompetitive HMRC has to build artificial incentives into the contract, as though it were the Department for Health trying to force an NHS trust to mimic the market.

Capgemini logo.pngHush hush

The lions share of the money goes to Capgemini and its two main subcontractors, Accenture and Fujitsu.

HRMC pays Capgemini over £800m-a-year for everything from application development and data centres, to call centres and maintenance.

Another 238 suppliers get a piece of those billions. One must wonder why there aren't more of them. But we don't get to see the numbers.

Even the Cabinet Office's much trumpeted bulk renegotiation of Capgemini's government business is commercial in confidence. Capgemini's executives and major shareholders will have the details. We shall have to trust them and the Whitehall mandarins to ensure what little competition they have is sporting enough.

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.

Centralish

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.

Fairish

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.

Prime Minister puts weight behind open source software push

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The Prime Minister's office has put its weight behind a drive to make the government's open source policy overcome the obstacles that have seen it flounder for the last two years.

Word of Prime Minister Cameron's intervention came as the Cabinet Office unveiled a raft of measures to designed to fulfil the coalition government's policy commitment to "create a level playing field for open source". The Cabinet Office is working on an open source reference stack, a software assessment model, a CIO training programme and an system to survey open source use in government and finger those departments who don't do enough.

"Number 10 are pushing this," Tariq Rashid, lead architect of the Home Office Technology and Solutions Assurance Team, told Computer Weekly.

Rashid, who was helping the Cabinet Office unearth the reasons why systems integrators have ignored the government's open source policy, said there had been more pressure from Number 10 over open source than there had been from the Cabinet Office, which was responsible for the policy.

open-source-si-forum.pngThe Cabinet Office told systems integrators the Prime Minister was pushing the open source policy when it assembled them for a telling off on Monday, said Mark Taylor, CEO of Sirius Corporation, an open source supplier who attended the meeting.

<<< Read the presentation to the Cabinet Office's first Open Source Integrator Forum <<<

The first meeting of the government's Open Source Integrator Forum was a dressing down in which the big 12 systems integrators, who supply 80 per cent of all government IT, were told firmly that they were preventing the government from carrying out its policy and had better change their ways.

Reform

The Cabinet Office this week trailed a series of programmes designed to break the open source deadlock. First among them was a promise to create an open source reference stack: a certified list of software that when put together could create an assuredly functional system.

A meeting of the British Computer Society heard on Tuesday night how the government relied on reference stacks produced by the leading software vendors in preference of their own applications and those produced by their strategic allies. The practice excluded competitors and left procurement professionals across government ignorant of alternatives even when they were better and cheaper.Open_Source_Options_v0.1.png

>>> Read the government's draft list of approved open source software >>>

The Cabinet Office was also working on a draft software assessment model after losing patience with systems integrators whose own assessments typically failed to approve open source alternatives to software produced by the dominant corporations.

Rashid told integrators about the plan on Tuesday: "In my experience, when we've spoken to some of the integrators there's been a reluctance to work with some open source software that this department's wanted to work with. Systems integrators say the software isn't suitable."

"Quite often, the refrain from the integrators is that the software is not appropriate, not mature enough and not suitable based on their internal assessment approach."

Open_Source_for_Govt_Assessment_Model_v0.1.pngOne way we can try and help that is if the Cabinet Office starts producing an assessment model to separate good software from bad software, looking at things like support, how established is it, is there good governance around development, these sorts of things. That would enable customers to say, 'We want to use WordPress and according to this model it's not going to fail'".

<<< Read the government's draft Open Source Assessment model <<<

Rashid said the Cabinet Office was also planning to put departmental IT heads through an education programme after discovering they "aren't as up to scratch in open source technologies". The education programme may extend to those people overseeing procurement reform under the Cabinet Office's IT Strategy review.

"We have people looking at it, but they are not really experienced in setting out procurement paths to open source," said Rashid.

He asked the open source community to contribute to the Cabinet Office's draft policy documents.

Cabinet Office was also formulating a means of checking to see if departments were implementing the open source policy, and giving growing consideration to open source software. This would be something short of an audit, said Rashid, but the Cabinet Office would use it to finger departments that were not stepping up.

Other elements of the initiative include an Open Source Advisory panel, being led by campaign group Open Forum Europe. This is intended to act as a counterweight to the Open Source Integrator Forum, populated by the systems integrators believed to be blocking government policy. A cross-government Open Source Implementation Group will have its first meeting in two weeks.

Computer Weekly understands the open source policy was put on the shelf last year when the Cabinet Office declared its IT contracts moratorium and required every hand to go through proposed procurements with a cost-cutting comb. Qumar Yunus, employed to lead the open source policy, was put straight on the moratorium instead. He came off it only in recent weeks.

A spokesman for Number 10 avoided answering questions about the Prime Minister putting his weight behind the open source policy.

G-Cloud: introducing the neo-database state

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Now the Home Office has destroyed its prototype ID database in a publicity stunt, the government is putting the finishing touches to plans that would put the real Identity Scheme databases at the heart of a powerful government data sharing system.

The Government Cloud (G-Cloud), an ambitious Cabinet Office scheme to share IT resources and data across the whole of government, is seeking to remove all technical and organisational barriers to public sector data sharing.

Reports published last week by the Cabinet Office describe how G-Cloud will exhume the data sharing systems that underpinned ID Cards, along with the fatal data security risks that went with them. The principles will be applied to all government data. The plans have been overseen by the same executives who oversaw the ID Scheme's data-sharing system, the ill-fated CISx.

Damian Green Destroying ID scheme Hard Disks - February 2011 - 500 by 415 dpi.jpgThe reports state that the only limits to data sharing between government departments in the G-Cloud would be those imposed by law. It is presumed that whatever sharing is required will be permitted.

The principle was established a year ago in the G-Cloud Vision, which was drafted by Martin Bellamy, the same civil servant who advised ministers to proceed with the CISx as one of two core components of the ID scheme.

Bellamy's Vision cited the CISx as an example of the sort of data sharing that would be possible within the G-Cloud. The CISx plan had involved turning the Department for Work and Pensions Customer Information System database (CIS), which contains personal details of everyone in the country, into a system that could be accessed across the whole government.

"As it develops, the G-Cloud will become the repository of a significant portion of Public Sector data," it said.

Linking data

Bellamy's Vision laid out architectural principles explored in greater detail by G-Cloud working groups under the coalition government last year. The most fundamental was that the government should seek to ensure that data items were harmonized across government so they could be linked.

The G-Cloud seeks to harness the power of the internet to create a network of interchangeable and interoperating systems. It is envisaged that the near entirety of public computer systems would be assimilated by the G-Cloud programme in 10 years.

John Suffolk clarified the vision before he stood down as government's chief information officer last year. The government CTO Council would oversee the development of common data standards G-Cloud required.

"These standards will also ease the process of sharing data between different public sector organisations," he said.

After Joe Harley was appointed CIO in January this year, his division of the Cabinet Office put its stamp on the most up-to-date of the draft G-Cloud plans, the G-Cloud Services Specification.

The specification took the idea of G-Cloud as crucible of government data sharing and rebranded it as system for "Information Access". This involved different public bodies sharing one another's applications in order to access one another's data.

Threads and shreds

It used precisely the same language as the year-ago G-Cloud Vision to describe the framework within which G-Cloud data sharing would operate.
 
"This service will only be permitted where statute allows the data to be shared with the requesting public body," said the reports.

The only other data sharing proviso would be that "information assurance requirements for the data are adequately supported across the G-Cloud," they said.

Shredded ID Database parts - Home Office - February 2011 - 5433789496_eeb5941e9b.jpgThis lesson will be fresh in the minds of those in the Cabinet Office putting the finishing touches to the G-Cloud strategy. Harley was CIO at the DWP when the CISx plan was devised and was still there when it was scrapped last year. Ian Watmore, his boss at the Cabinet Office, spearheaded the Transformational Government strategy by which the Labour government had sought to increase public sector data sharing. The CIS got a special mention in the Transformational Government strategy as well.

The Home Office said last week its minister Damian Green (pictured) had destroyed Labour's ID database. But he only destroyed the temporary system the Home Office erected in a hurry so it could get ID cards on the streets before the 2010 election. It had still not proceeded with integrating the real ID databases because it was still trying to work out how to resolve their excruciating data security problems.

The photographs of Green shredding hard disks on an industrial estate in Essex were a publicity stunt staged to destroy a publicity stunt. It was always said the ID cards were a only a token of the sort of computer systems that have already become well established instruments of government.

The databases still exist. The government still has a plan to integrate them. And the security problems inherent in public sector data sharing have still not been resolved.

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.

How Bristol made a fudge from open source

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Editor's note: Computer Weekly's public sector IT blog is back, with a new blogger - this is the first entry by Mark Ballard, an experienced writer with a history of great scoops on public sector IT, who will be filing his insights regularly during a time when public sector technology is under greater focus than ever.

Bristol City's Council Cabinet passed its controversial ICT strategy last week. And it went without a hitch.

Unless you happen to use open source software. Then it went the way of many another open source project, like a clown's car.

And this not merely because the council decided to buy Microsoft software licences for 7,000 desktops, effectively throwing a five-year old Linux strategy out with the rubbish.

Bristol webcasted the event in a Microsoft format. You had little hope of watching it from a Linux machine unless you were nerd enough to troubleshoot the incompatibility yourself.

Not that you would have missed anything. Council Cabinet meetings are merely ceremonial anyway. This LibDem Cabinet had already decided to approve its LibDem ICT policy.

It looked remarkably similar to any other LibDem policy in power. Call it a fudge if you like. Call it deluded, or snake oil. You may even call it a heroic stand against the forces of Conservatism. But the effect is the same: declare open source and buy Microsoft.

Ladyboys

But for Councillor Mark Wright, that would have been the end of it. Wright is a golem someone made from powerful LibDem icons in the Stoney Littleton Barrow on the night of the Flower Moon.

So he's a rocket scientist and software engineer who wears a goatee. His only declarations of interest to the council authorities have been his membership of numerous charitable, church, school and civil rights bodies.

The only time he ever accepted hospitality as a councillor was to watch African music performed with a hiphop beat. Apart from the time he accepted tickets to see "The Ladyboys of Bangkok" in Bristol Castle Park, which is as expected as well.

Satan

Being a died in the wool LibDem means he also "gets" open source software. He pushed through what was left of Bristol's open source policy after the "buy Microsoft" clause was put in against the only opposition it could possibly encounter: befuddlement and indifference.

Or ignorance and lethargy, as its called by the open source faithful.

It's the same attitude that makes people buy ready-made, frozen Yorkshire puddings instead of mixing their own batter: they may cost ten-times as much, taste half as good and be stuffed with E-numbers - but it's easier on a Sunday when the Eastenders Omnibus is on TV.

Some Bristol councillors were saying, 'Why don't you do us all a favour and just buy Microsoft'. The LibDem policy was to buy Microsoft, but then to squeeze open software and open standards into every bloody crack and crappy crevice they could find in the great Satan's hide.

Some people don't want the complication: just buy Microsoft, and let us all get back to our tea and scones, or class A's and piercings, or whatever it is that old ladies do to the pass the time in Bristol nowadays.

What swung them in the end was the fact that a fudged open source strategy was still cheaper than going all out with Microsoft. And it has the Big Society Zeitgeist: it costs less and can only work if the locals get involved.

This do-it-yourself computing is behind the most enlightening aspect of Bristol's policy. It's same idea with which do-gooders have tried to inflict open source software on Africa.

Why pay some leeching multinational for software, it goes, when it could be produced locally with all the progress in skills, wealth and health that would entail?

Gaga

The same refrain can now be heard in the Council Cabinet webcasts being broadcast from Bristol (though only by people with Microsoft software).

Cllr Wright, who as a Linux user cannot listen to his own Council webcasts, put it to Bristol's Cabinet thus: "Bristol is rich with small and medium-sized software and media companies, many of them with excellent open source and modern software skills.

"We want to help those companies grow, and ensure more IT spend of this council goes into the local economy instead of being mailed off to California, which is the situation at the moment with licence fees."

Microsoft is actually based in Redmond, Washington. But just think of any Imperial metropolis and you will get the picture. Think of 18th Century Liverpool, wage slave. The modern software economy has a familiarly infantilising dependency on colonial technology and capital.

Open source is therefore what development economists call intermediate technology. People like Wright hope the deprived corners of inequitable Britain will take to open source like toddlers to bicycles with stabilizers. Some years from now British enterprise will take off on its own and Microsoft will go the way of the East India Company.

Or imagine Microsoft as Ford and that Bristol is seeing the birth of Toyota. The problem is the only work Bristol City Council will have for local open source developers is in support of the Microsoft software they have been forced to buy because proprietary Microsoft standards are as sure a drain on progress as any protectionist trade agreement foisted by European colonial powers on hapless African chieftains.

That's not any reason to hate Microsoft, as they say. Not any more than a teenager might hate an overbearing parent.

It's all part of growing up. And the turn of generations. Something has to give. Because from Bristol's perspective, "the only realistic alternatives are revolution or continued dependency", to quote the development sociologist Ian Roxborough.

IT openness is coming - Cabinet Office

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Government CIO John Suffolk and his colleagues are preparing plans for the publication of IT-related documents that have always been secret and  difficult to obtain even under the Freedom of Information Act.

The plans include the publication of:

- Gateway reviews

- Project reports of all types

- Risk registers

Business cases

- Minutes of project meetings

- Health Check reports

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