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Cosy cloud coterie snuggles into top nob govIT jobs

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Mmmmmits snug at the top. Especially if you're Julian David, IBM's top UK salesman, who last week was picked to be Director General of Intellect, the ICT oligopoly's trade association.

It's only three years since David bagged the sale of the century, getting the Cabinet Office to re-badge IBM's cloud computing slogan as HM G-Cloud. Now he's not only got the cosiest seat in the business, but Andy Nelson, his apprentice on the G-Cloud programme, has been appointed government CIO at the Cabinet Office, the most senior job in government IT.

Imagine how made up David was when, chuckling over his cognac at the Intellect hearth, he learns that Nelson, Ministry of Justice CIO and senior responsible owner for HM G-Cloud, would be his opposite number in government.

How cosy it will be round the fireside when the pair are joined by Cabinet Office permanent secretary Ian Watmore, who was Nelson's colleague at Anderson Consulting (later known as Accenture) for seven years after they joined the 1980 intake.

How quaint last March's government ICT strategy now seems, with Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude vowing to "put an end to the oligopoly of large suppliers that monopolise [government] ICT provision".

Julian David - IBM - Intellect.pngAll that puff and bluster for aught

David moves into office at a crucial time for IBM. All his work promoting the G-Cloud is about to come to fruition. But it will need an extra push to get public bodies around the country to swallow it, close all their data centres, sack all their techies and give all their computer systems over to IBM or whichever branch of Acme Data Corp. they happen to buddy. That's what the G-Cloud promises.

David's just the man for the job. For though his 28-year career at IBM was officially terminated in 2010, he has an unrivalled track record selling IT industry fads.

He was there in 1998 as IBM's European Marketing director, flogging the Year 2000 bug fix to a terrified public, telling them it would be "the kiss of death" to anyone who didn't fix it.

He was there again flogging disastrous Enterprise Resource Planning systems in the millennial boom years.

The fateful year SAP began selling IT disasters to the retail industry, there was David again as ERP marketing director at the Retail Industry Unit of IBM, telling supermarkets how by spending mere hundreds of millions of pounds they could turn reliable old systems into ones that would burn their money more efficiently.

Andy Nelson - Government CIO.pngRetailers lapped it up. Andy Nelson, our new government CIO, was there in 1997 - lapping it up as Asda director of computer services, though only as long as it took to outsource the supermarket's computing to IBM.

Asda's then new CEO Allan Leighton did the deal after returning from a Harvard MBA programme. Two Harvard professors came to see it went smoothly.



Bad reputation

ian watmore DIUS Expo 08 Manchester Uni.jpgIt might not have gone so smoothly, but it certainly gave the eggheads something to think about when that first raft of ERP deals came to fruition in the mid-noughties.

MFI's £50m IBM SAP implementation led to losses and two boardroom scalps.

Sainsbury's had outsourced its entire IT in a £1.8bn deal with Accenture, then overseen by Ian Watmore. Four years later, its first ever net loss was attributed to supply chain and IT problems.

Sainsbury's kicked Accenture out and wrote off £260m IT spend. Bringing its IT back in-house was said to have helped turn the business around. Its management still denounces outsourcing, "unequivocally".

Angela Morrison, the woman who kicked Accenture out of Sainsbury's, had earlier kicked IBM out of Asda, undoing the work our new man Nelson had done in 1997.

Asda's subsequent, do-it-yourself SAP implementation was so successful it was rolled out across the rest of Walmart, its parent. Walmart's success was said to stem from doing its own IT, because it was too integral to trust to an outsourcer.

Other companies followed suit. JP Morgan bank terminated its $5bn IBM outsourcing contract in 2005. It had been the largest such deal in banking. Even Gartner, cheerleader for the US IT industry, admitted it was "time to stop compulsive outsourcing".

Worse still for IBM, the dotcom bust had forced the private sector to freeze IT spend. So IBM and its ilk turned on the public sector, which was famously the only sector spending any money. Watmore was now in government, overseeing the spending.

That's where Julian David pitched up after retail. As vice president of IBM public sector business he started flogging the same big outsourcing deals that had gone tits up in the private sector.

There was some good news to boost his chances.

Rob Fraser - Sainsbury's IT Director - receiving 2011 CIO of the Year award.png Boots terminated a £710m IBM outsourcing contract only half-way through its term in 2007, apparently because it had been so successful its modernisation finished early.

But Boots vowed never to put all its eggs in one basket ever again.

Rob Fraser, its group IT director (now at anti-outsourcer Sainsbury's), said outsource suppliers had no interest in helping customers cut the cost of their IT.


With friends like these...


But outsourcers were now busy trashing their reputations in the public sector. They made such a good job of it that government IT became synonymous with disaster. And government is going through the same re-evaluation of outsourcing industry went through in the mid-noughties.

This is the apparent legacy of John Higgins, Intellect boss for 14 years. He became head of the CSSA in 1998 and rode the rise and fall, consolidation of power, establishment of a bankrupt contractual model, left a trail of IT disaster stories and an industry with a reputation for bodge and exploitation - a reputation that became so well established the coalition government was able to define itself in opposition to it - to define Labour as the government of big-state IT failures. Government has denounced his trade association's membership and methods as the corollary of Labour IT. It has tried to mend their mutual record of kaput computing by rallying tech entrepreneurs not normally associated with Intellect.

On the occasion of David's appointment last week Intellect issued a press release in which the DG-designate said he looked forward to doing his bit to improve skills in the industry and support SMEs.

CW asked Intellect for David's SME credentials, Intellect said he had wide experience and had worked with SMEs.

Burmuda.pngDavid used to flog computers to SMEs as vice president of IBM's SME business. But his SME credentials consist of just eight months as a board director of EGS Group, a £3m company that had worked with him on the Cabinet Office G-Cloud plans in 2010.

He left EGS in May 2011 to open a UK office for Hong Kong-based, Bermuda-registered, Azeus.

...who needs SMEs?

David's SME credentials do not compare well with the notable notches he marked up as big business honcho at IBM.

The most notable of his recent achievements was an infamous £400m outsourcing deal by which IBM sought to gain control of public computing across the entire South West England. It is hard to imagine this megalomaniacal plan having any regard for SMEs.

Flush with the Boots boost in 2007, IBM formalised an agreement in principle to subsume the IT functions of 36 councils and emergency services in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire.

It initially involved IBM taking 75 per cent ownership of a public-private partnership called SouthWest One and acquiring the IT functions of Somerset and Taunton Deane Councils and Avon & Somerset Police.

It would implement a SAP system to run them and deliver £192m savings over 10 years. David said the project would cut costs and boost the local economy. But it floundered.

The SAP implementation went awry. A report by Somerset County Council Review Panel in 2010 said participating councils would have to renegotiate their contract before they would realise the savings IBM promised at the outset.

Alan Jones - former CEO of Somerset County Council.pngThe then Somerset CEO Alan Jones had earlier denied specific allegations of SAP problems and contract failures made by Ian Liddell-Grainger, local MP.

£65m of savings had already been booked, Jones claimed in 2009. The 2010 report said the venture had delivered only £2m of savings, had no clear idea how it would produce the rest and could anyway conceive only an estimated £45m cut in procurement costs.

The affair was murky, with Unison and councillors complaining about unwarranted secrecy. IBM had blocked an ITV reporter from using a little-known public scrutiny law to view the contract. Liddell-Grainger made unsubstantiated allegations of corruption. Jones got embroiled in grubby in-fighting with councillors.


David personally played an important part in turning this trashy reputation into a revamped sales story for outsourcers. Called the cloud, it was a transcendental vision worthy of the late 90s ERP pitch.

The cloud was a rebranding of ideas already in David's public sector pitch in 2007: departmental silos were bad, paying IBM to consolidate your data centres and virtualize your systems was good. Asset re-use was the carrot on the stick.

The fully formed cloud pitch was essentially outsourcing with dodgy bits stuck on. It promised to cut costs, cut jobs and deploy a radically new sort of computer system.

Julian David Presents RBWM plans for UK LAs to cloud at Intellect - Cloud Presentation - 11 October 2010.pngIt'll be different this time

As president of Socitm in 2010, Jos Creese promoted those same ideas, proposing local authorities sack computing staff and buy services instead from the cloud.

Creese fell in with David in 2006 when as CIO of Hampshire County Council (home of IBM HQ) he did a five year deal to rent an enterprise architecture made of elements that would later underpin IBM's cloud.

Hampshire had at the time just celebrated the successful installation of an SAP system. Council IT staff had done the installation themselves. Hampshire systems were running £2m-a-year more efficiently.

Creese's ideas echoed those touted by Ian Trenholm, CEO at the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead, a council with intimate ties to the coalition government. David's cloud pitch did too.

The shared idea was that if councils standardised their business processes, their organisations would readily plug into the cloud.

Margaret Miller - Accenture - former Sainsbury's CIO.pngSainsbury's had adopted the same ideas for its abortive Accenture transformation in 2000 - the one that led the supermarket to realise how IT was too important to entrust to someone else.

Margaret Miller, its then CIO, said how was trying to adopt standard business processes so it could use commodity computer systems. Miller now advises government customers for Accenture.

Pompous postlude

The idea runs contrary to the bottom-up noises the coalition government made before coming into power.

It runs contrary also to agile and lean, the empowering methods to which government has turned in the hope of reversing the trend for moronic public computer ventures - methods more akin to Sainsbury's, Asda and Hampshire in the days when they took IT into their own hands.

The Cabinet Office is meanwhile making a song and dance about getting SMEs into the G-Cloud. But the cloud will ultimately be a greater force for consolidation than economic regeneration.

When every council in the South West is using the same business processes, IBM's SouthWest One will be able to make a better case for subsuming their IT. The G-Cloud may not, as we are told, be a greater opportunity for SMEs, but merely something that must be made to accommodate SMEs so they are not excluded entirely.

Placatory postscript

John Higgins presents an award to an IT company for being an IT company.png
David will have to work hard to prove his SME talk is anything more than hot air. He will have to work harder to rescue the legacy left by Higgins, who you might think a decent man who has done good work, but showed poor judgement by staying in office after the wind changed.

As it happens, your jaded correspondent has had the good fortune to meet the new DG, and was struck at what a jolly good chap he appeared to be. That might better qualify him for the job than any publicity guff about SMEs, for the current bout of government-led reforms have striven for genuine collaboration to replace the adversarial relationships that defined its relationship with ICT suppliers in the past. But what industry really needs is a reformer, not a placatory pair of hands.

G-Cloud goes AWOL

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The coalition government is only applying its transparency programme where the release of information might be convenient.

That explains why Cabinet Office has refused to publish its draft plan for a government cloud, despite sitting on it for months.

Could the plans be too sensitive for government because they'll lead to public sector job cuts? That's what some say. Cloud giants Amazon, Google and Microsoft would lap up public sector data and house it overseas. The Cabinet Office doesn't even know what the effect will be on UK industry. Does it really know what it's doing?

Computer Weekly reporter Kat Hall sought to get the answers to some of these questions in an FOI request to the Cabinet Office. Her request was of course refused.

Cabinet Office said after careful deliberation it had concluded there was a public interest in keeping the plans private. This would protect "the confidence of scholars, journalists, and the general public".

We think it must be mistaken. To protect the confidence of the general public from general publication of the draft plan, the general public must have been given an opportunity to comment on it in the first place.

It cited Section 22(1) of the Freedom of Information Act, which allows public bodies to deny access to information intended for future publication, as long as they can claim their secrecy is in the public interest.

Publishing the draft plans now could undermine them, said the Cabinet Office, which has made a song and a dance about how transparency strengthens trust in government and encourages "greater public participation in decision-making".

The reality is quite the opposite. And Cabinet Office would have a trouble arguing that continued secrecy over the G-Cloud programme is in the public interest. But it doesn't need to make a case for secrecy under FOI law, it only needs to say it is justified.

The public interest in publishing the draft plans is so compelling you have to wonder how seriously the Cabinet Office is taking its responsibilities under the FOI Act.

The G-Cloud promises to have immense consequences for government, industry and even democracy. Handled wrong, it could be a wasted opportunity to invigorate 21st Century Britain. It could concentrate public sector spending in the hands of just a few IT suppliers and result in £billions of public money being spent oversees that may otherwise be invested in local firms, as Cabinet Office claims is an aspiration of its ICT Strategy.

Instead of the "open source politics" punted by Chancellor George Osborne and Prime Minister David Cameron before the 2010 election, an infantilised Britain would carry the cost of rising crime, benefit claims and hi-tech security by aggregating its purchasing power and selling it to one cloud provider. We would have UKGov-as-a-service, rented by the hour down the transatlantic pipe.

The country should be allowed to play a full part in deliberations over the plans. This was after all what the Cabinet Office transparency programme seemed to be about: improving government by making it participatory.

Cabinet Office have been developing the G-Cloud plans for two years without allowing public debate. Clearly the public interest is in transparency.

The cloud plan was last scheduled for publication in March. When the government published its ICT strategy on 30 March, it said the cloud plan wouldn't come till September. Before that it was going to Autumn 2010.

Phase 2 of the scheme, which ran from October 2009 to July 2010 involved input from 100 people across industry and included meetings with members of Intellect, a trade body. But these meetings were closed and the results of the exercise remained unpublished for long after their intended disclosure in the Autumn.

Cabinet Office meanwhile used the Phase 2 work to produce a steady drip of public statements designed to impress the public about the wisdom of the plans without ever allowing any real debate.

It was only after Computer Weekly obtained these documents under FOI and published them in February that debate was allowed to progress a little. But then the Cabinet Office went back to developing them in private, with what is most likely a much smaller cabal of suppliers than were privy to the last lot of plans.

No matter what lip service Cabinet Office pays to it, the private sector will stop the transparency initiative getting anywhere. Public debate is snuffed by those private companies close to government. They are as parsimonious with information that might aid the public good as they are with anything else.

Cabinet Office has been intending to publish its G-Cloud plans for a long time. But instead of publishing them and allowing open debate among industry and electorate, it keeps revising them. When they are finally delivered, it will be as a fait accompli. By then their publication will be pointless for anything but a justification of policy.

Spanner jams data centre mergers

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Mosquito up close.pngThe Cabinet Office dropped a stinker in Parliament this week, admitting it's data centre consolidation programme is lacking fundamental intelligence.

The Public Administration Select Committee asked Cabinet Office how many of the 220 data centres used by central government were actually owned by private suppliers. How on earth can you consolidate 220 data centres, the question implied, when most of them are owned by different suppliers and operated under different contracts.

Don't know, said the Cabinet Office in written evidence to the committee.

We don't know how many central government data centres are privately owned, it said. We don't actually know what contracts we have across government either. And while you're at it, neither have we any idea what the average cost of a desktop computer is in the public sector.

Look closely and you might spot a pattern here. Government has tried and failed for 10 years to get decent benchmarks on IT spending. It meanwhile has to beg suppliers for the numbers: tell us how good a deal you are giving us because we don't know.

Suppliers reckon they're giving good head. And then you hear the Department of Health has spent £2.7bn since 2003 on a nation-wide patient records system suppliers still haven't delivered.

So where does all the money go? Two point seven billion pounds to knock out a patient database: it can't all go on second and third country homes for overpaid wide boys and team-building weekends in Grouse season. Can it?

Pantomime baddies

As for data centres, the Cabinet Office thought a year ago there were just 130 of them in central government. Even then it should have known what it was talking about. A posse of boo-hissssssystems integrators brought the consolidation proposal to Cabinet Office on a plate in 2009. Counting data centres is not rocket science, even for these bozos.

But by late 2010 Cabinet Office found 90 data centres had fallen down the back of the sofa. Central government had 220 data centres it had to consolidate, not 130. And now, two years after busty trade body Intellect dreamt up the whole idea, Cabinet Office still doesn't know which Intellect members actually own them and, one would assume, just how good their offer to consolidate really is, or indeed how it might work.

Think of it like this. If a posse of 10 boo-hissssystems integrators came knocking on your door proposing a way to drastically reduce the amount of money you had to pay them for data centres, you wouldn't think it a bid odd, would you? No, you'd take their plan and present it as a data centre consolidation programme toot suite.

Ask around, and it becomes apparent government's lack of intelligence about what it pays its ICT suppliers to do might inhibit the consolidation programme's aspirations.

Dr Richard Sykes, a data centre consultant, reckons suppliers only proposed data centre consolidation because they got wind of mega-data centres run by the likes of Amazon and saw their number was up. What an old cynic.

At least, he says, central government's estate of data centres had "grown like topsy". As each department realised it needed a data centre, it got one - and got one of its own on the advice of an oligopoly of ICT suppliers.

Now they're all over the place and thank Christ someone noticed what a killing these suppliers were making because poor Mrs Harris didn't get on too well this winter and she's wondering if her winter fuel allowance will see her through next year what with the wide boys having pissed her pension up the wall and all our taxes having been wasted on all these bloody redundant data centres.

By the time the consolidation plan had become the G-Cloud Vision, and the Cabinet Office had fleshed out proposals in consultation with SMEs, people like ex-CIO John Suffolk started saying how government intelligence about its own IT expenditure would always be one bob short as long as systems were not implemented using agreed standards.

The government wasn't getting straight answers from its suppliers. It's tempting to think of them as self-serving parasites. That would probably be unfair. But when the Cabinet Office says the problem with public sector IT is government has not been an intelligent customer, that is only half the story. It's tantamount to saying, blame the victim.

Mosquito.png
So how do you find out how many central government data centres are owned by the private sector if you can't trust their answer?

You could order them to open their books. It might not be necessary for something as simple as data centres. But there's a few other riddles you could answer while you were at it. Like where did that £2.75bn of NHS money go? Can we have a line-by-line breakdown submitted to the National Audit Office, please?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Government to end ICT "oligopoly"

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The government has promised to bring down the ICT oligopoly as part of a strategy that may have seismic consequences for the public and private sectors.

The 18 large ICT suppliers that have controlled 80 per cent of Britain's much maligned public sector IT will have the rug pulled from beneath them if the reforms promised in today's Cabinet Office IT Strategy work as envisaged.

Big Ben.pngPolicy makers will be freed from the lead shoes put on them by the lumbering, multi-billion IT contracts that have tied them to the big suppliers and hold political initiative back, the policy claims.  

Open standards will be "imposed" on technology in the public sector, creating a country-wide computing platform that will subvert the misshapen procurement regime by allowing young, innovative firms to merely plug-in to UK.gov.

Such an ecosystem may become a feat of civil engineering to define the early 21st Century: a public work to make monoliths like the National Programme for IT seem like the work of 19th Century engineers.

The reforms will bring far-reaching changes to every corner of the public sector. They will require the civil service to agree common working practices in order for the computer system processes built upon them to be interoperable.

"The government will put an end to the oligopoly of large suppliers that monopolise its ICT provision," declared the strategy.

But government would "move away from large ICT projects that are slow to implement or pose a greater risk of failure" only "where possible". The government is already locked into IT contracts, such as the £8.5bn Aspire deal HMRC has with Capgemini, that preceded the last Parliamentary term and may yet outlive the present government.

The government would nevertheless adopt a "presumption against" IT contracts above £100m, while HMRC got a special mention for a plug and play website into which IT SMEs have been plugging tax data apps.

Open source

The strategy also carried forward a raft of reforms begun under the last government. The coalition would re-use its software systems, instead of buying them anew for different departments.

It would build an "asset register" and a government app store. Senior officials would be made to take more interest in and responsibility for their IT systems so fewer of them turned into hash.

But just as the last government in 2009 promised "a level playing field for open source", and a year later promised the same again. It has now been promised again. Open source would get a level playing field and would be used "where possible".

Both the government may have to step up their campaigning efforts if it wants its next ICT strategy, in 2014, to reflect any serious support it may be have for open source.

The programme of reform would, appropriately enough for one proposing lean and agile development methodologies, only last 24 months.

Any longer would be too long to leave the large ICT suppliers unsupervised.

We gave up, says GovIT SME

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It's so hard dealing with the large suppliers who control UK government IT that its not even worth bothering to knock on their door.

So said a public sector SME that has built bespoke software for the last 20 years. Systems integrators are supposed to manage government's IT supply chain, bringing SMEs into the loop and keeping costs down. But SMEs say they push costs up and pick the best work for themselves.

Steve Elliott - SFW.png
Steve Elliott, director and co-founder of SFW, told Computer Weekly he had given up knocking on the doors of systems integrators because they never answered.

Elliott had approached most of those few SIs that control the majority of public sector IT. The £4.5m company had never found any success with such approaches at all.

"We don't engage much with SIs now. Because we haven't been successful in the past we prefer to continue to engage directly with our clients," said Elliott, whose business gets 80 per cent of its business from the public sector.

SMEs are usually scared of speaking out, for fear of being punished commercially. Elliott insisted he wouldn't name names.

But he claimed to have stories where SIs had closed him out of clients or made money for old rope.

One involved an SI approving the work SFW was doing for a client. It involved developing a browser add-on so the client could display some proprietary file formats online.

Quote my quote

"The SI had to see how much it would cost to evaluate and test it, so it was like a quote for a quote. They wanted to do a feasibility study to see how long the quote would take," said Elliott.

"When you compare it to what we were charging and the time-scales we were charging it was a different order of magnitude really. They were taking weeks to do something that would normally take us a few days.

"The department was frustrated. Its not that they were over-charging. They were charging as per the contract," Elliott said.

Without specific exmples there is no way of verifying Elliott's story. SMEs often make such unfounded reports. All SIs get branded alike. None specifically get the blame.

System error

Nevertheless, SIs blunted the competitive edge of those few SMEs they did employ by lumping a five to 10 per cent fee on top of their costs, said Elliott, whose clients include ACAS, DEFRA, and the Veterinary Laboratory Agency.

SMEs are most resentful of this fee, even though they acknowledge SIs are charging for procurement services rendered and risks shouldered.

Elliott said the trouble for SMEs started around 2005 when the Office of Government Commerce (now part of the Cabinet Office) began aggregating its IT business into such large clumps SMEs were automatically excluded. OGC Buying Solutions simultaneously cut the numbers of suppliers on its Framework Contracts in response to changes in EU procurement law. 

SFW had spent a few years on the S-CAT framework in the days of the e-Government push and had seen growth of 20 per cent a year. It was kicked off in 2005 and for the last 3 years growth has been flat. The market influence looks strong here, but Elliott thinks a "significant" difference is made when SIs control access to clients.

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.

Parliament illustrates gov.IT malfunction by example

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Empty Parliamentary Committee Room.pngAs MPs on the Public Administration Committee opened their inquiry into government IT today, they exemplified the problem they are seeking to solve: why is government IT often such a hash?

Their attempt to expose the problem to democratic scrutiny was hobbled by their dependence on the same proprietary computer systems that made such a hash government IT in the first place.

If you tuned in to Parliament TV this morning you may have seen some of the UK's leading academics of computing shine a light on the problem. Then you may have not. Parliamentary internet broadcasts are optimised for people using Microsoft software.

This is the very sort of bind the government is trying to escape with its G-Cloud and open source strategies. Proprietary software vendors and systems integrators have been free to mop up behind the scenes of the public sector for years because they supply IT systems over which they control the rights and can therefore charge monopoly rents.

Their position looks untenable now government is relying on their software to support democratic processes.

Blue screen

So Microsoft may have been chuffed when Parliament chose its lackluster Silverlight multimedia technology to deliver live video streams of British democracy in action. It now looks like the most striking illustration of the blight such proprietary software is on society and democracy.

How can a democracy address the systematic problem of proprietary software when the only people who can hear the debate are those users and compadres of proprietary software vendors?

This became a pertinent matter for your humble correspondent this morning. He was unable report on the PASC enquiry because he wasn't using a Microsoft system. Parliament's website said it was unable to deliver its video to anyone who wasn't using Microsoft Silverlight. It asked users of competing systems to install alternative software. Only the alternative software doesn't work, at least not without maintenance beyond the means of all citizens but the ITerati.

Interoperability is a problem for web video, colonized as it is by proprietary software interests. It has not proved beyond the wit of the BBC, whose own Democracy Live website relies on the imperfect but universal, proprietary Flash technology. But the Beeb doesn't bother transmitting committee proceedings. The broadcast rights holder (of which it is a shareholder) probably asks for too much money.

Sir Tim Berners Lee.pngAt least when Parliament publishes the written transcript of the PASC inquiry tomorrow it will be available to everyone. The textual components of Parliament web site are delivered using standards defined by the World Wide World Web Consortium, an independent body which (unlike Parliament) is answerable not to self-serving software corporations, but to Britain's beloved internet champion, Sir Tim Berners Lee.

Perhaps Sir Tim will make a contribution to enquiry. Will anyone outside of Westminster's proprietary software circle get to hear about it if he does?

Open standards policy gets thumbs up and let down

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The government's open standards policy is being hailed by free software campaigners as an example to other European countries, but on condition the Cabinet Office can actually implement it - a condition that carries no guarantee.

The Cabinet Office policy might have made the bold, even radical declaration that government ICT must be implemented using open standards at no cost and to the satisfaction of no royalty holder. But it has no teeth.

Its success will depend entirely on the co-operation of procurement officers across the public sector who are accused by techies from as broad a church as the Public and Commercial Services Union and the British Computer Society of making a hash through their ignorance of IT.

The open source and open standards policy had no teeth when the last government launched it two years ago. It had no teeth when relaunched last February. It has no teeth now it has been relaunched again.

Yet it is still being lauded as the gold standard for all other governments to follow. It encapsulates what the open lobby have been demanding for years. And it has fired a broadside into the proprietary software lobby that campaigned so hard in Brussels to temper the European Interoperability Framework (EIF). If the proprietary lobby has been at work in London, it doesn't show. Everything it worked for now looks lost.

Just hear what the free software lobby have to say about the UK policy.

Karsten Gerloff, president of the Free Software Foundation Europe, told CW it was "leap ahead for the UK". Britain had always been a laggard. Europe had always led the push for open systems.

"This is one of the stronger policies we've seen from European governments. We'd like to see similarly well-considered steps from more European governments," said Gerloff.

He said it was better than the "fudged compromise" the European Commission made out of the latest version of its EIF, version 2, published in December.

Roaow!...

Graham Taylor, chief executive of Open Forum Europe, said the Cabinet Office had sensibly used the EC's last open standards policy for its reference and not version 2.

In so doing the UK had set the standard that other countries would indeed follow, said Taylor, whose lobby group has been given the honour of chairing the Cabinet Office's newly formed Open Source Advisory Panel.

Taylor expected other countries to follow the UK with similar policy statements. The EIF was meanwhile not a damp squib. It encapsulated as much compromise as it was possible to achieve between the 27 states of the European Union.

"The EIF is there to encourage pan-European interoperability," he said. "National governments have to come up with their own definitions. The commission has gone as far as it will go."

The UK is the first country to announce an open standards policy since the EIF was published in December. Taylor's advisory group, which has been donated a meeting room and facilities at the Cabinet Office's Whitehall headquarters, has been charged with making it happen. It is meant to be counterweight to the Systems Integrators' Forum, that other body formed the Cabinet Office formed last month with orders not to prevent it happening.

Whether it does actually happen will depend on whether the Cabinet Office and the industry can sustain the movement's momentum.

...Paper tiger!

Gerry Gavigan, chair of the Open Source Consortium, is not convinced the government has done enough to remove the obstacles.

"It all hinges on what you make of 'wherever possible'," said Gavigan in reference to the terms by which the Cabinet Office has declared that open standards should be implemented.

And, he said it hinges on what the government plans to do in those cases where it is possible to implement an open standard but a government body chooses not to.

"What does that recommendation mean in the context of say, DWP?" he said. "If one wants to claim benefits on-line one is told explicitly that the system will only work with MS Windows. What effect does the Cabinet Office recommendation have there?"

A recent meeting of the British Computer Society's Open Source Specialist Group considered the reasons why almost all government websites used Microsoft software to the detriment of their interoperability with other systems.

It may ultimately have something to do with what Gerloff calls the "lamentable" standards process which gave us, for example, the Microsoft OOXML "charade". He commended the government for declaring that all standards should be formed by an open process. That may have some repercussions for bodies like the British Standards Institute.

It also trails the outcome of the current review of standards being conducted by the European Commission. EU regulations require standards to be set in reference to EU standards organisations. The UK wants them set on international terms.

End IT dinosaurs' reign of terror, MPs told

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Public sector IT was depicted as a scene of prehistoric horror in evidence submitted to the Public Administration Select Committee last week.

300-pages of testimony described how a crass procurement regime and stunted technology has created an environment favourable to out-sized IT companies that dominate the rest of the industry. If the evidence before the Committee is anything to go by, everyone's unhappy but the dinosaurs.

As reported by the National Audit Office in another report last week, just 18 IT suppliers command 80 per cent of all government IT contracts. These great, lumbering systems integrators (SIs) may be in for a shock on the scale of a mile-wide meteor. The G-Cloud may pack a wallop. But the government is wavering on its promise to end the £100m+ IT contracts that sustain the IT ecosystem.

Nevertheless, the environment has changed. The PASC evidence comprised a consensus (among all bar the dinosaurs) around the necessity of procurement reform and open standards of interoperability.

These changes promise to nurture the current surge of hi-tech SMEs, just as environmental changes at the end of the Cretaceous period of earth's history led to a proliferation of flowering plants that fed the insects that fed the rise of the mammals.

SMEs may be similarly fluffy, but they have evolved a good set of teeth and will eat your babies if you don't watch them closely.

Cold-blooded

The Cretaceous period is reported in the PASC evidence, and is often said, to have begun in the late 1980s when the last Conservative government (Libdem's absented) started winding down the now beloved Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA), the public agency that is said to have kept private IT suppliers in line.

What is universally described now as the government's inability to behave as an "intelligent customer" is said to stem from a trend established then: for government to give contractors the job of telling it what it needs to buy from them.

This led to the situation exemplified by the National Programme for NHS IT and raised repeatedly in the PASC evidence, where the government must therefore also trust what has now become an oligopoly of SIs to sub-contract on its behalf.

They were asked to sub-contract to other tech firms in the public interest, when their first concern was for their own shareholders and executive pensions. This was a product of the naive, New Labour vision of public-private partnership, the precursor to government's Big Society wheeze.

Just about everyone is exasperated with the pattern established under the National Programme for IT, where prime contractors were given the power to hire and fire SMEs vying for government business - or to cut everyone else out and do the work themselves, if they so preferred, which they did.

Ravenous

They call it the bums on seats rule: a large SI will sooner stick another over-paid consultant on the job than let an SME disrupt its business model with some new technology that does away with the need for over-paid consultants.

That's more or less what Malcolm Harbour, chairman of the Conservative Technology Association, told the PASC submission, though he expressed no concern about pay inequality or executive pensions.

Stifled innovation is the terror in this tale: warm-blooded SMEs huddling in caves for shelter, only venturing out to steal eggs and pick insects off dinosaur hides.

David Chassels, CEO of software SME Procession plc, and a former executive with venture fund 3i, relayed for the Committee inquiry a rare public account of how he went cap in hand to Capita for a share of some public business and was thrown out by his ear.

Other SME's will tell you similar stories, but they are scared of naming and shaming in case they get singled out for retribution by the all-powerful SI's.

This unsavoury environment has been sustained by the UK's "gold-plated" interpretation of EU procurement rules said testimony after testimony submitted to the PASC.

The procurement regime is complex and inefficient, they said. It's therefore so expensive that only large firms can afford to take part, and is terrible way of doing anything well but fulfilling obligations set by the procurement rules.

The Office of Government Commerce had made matters worse by relying so heavily on Framework Agreements - backroom deals done to squeeze savings out of large suppliers by consolidating their government contracts.

Thick-skinned

Protecting it all, like the jungle crater round the land that time forgot, are the proprietary software standards that made it difficult for anyone to get in or out of these multi-billion pound IT contracts.

A lot of people are very peeved about this. The dinosaurs, it is said, build systems with which no-one else can interoperate so no-one else can create more innovative ways of doing things.

But the world has moved on, as described clearly in the PASC evidence. Interoperable systems and open standards are the order of the day.

The government hasn't quite moved on, though its been talking the talk for a while. No less than the British Computer Society was reduced to asking in its PASC evidence to be consulted before the government concludes its now concluding policy deliberations on an inclusive IT ecosystem.

Westminster Council said the government's long been better at talking the talk than walking the walk on standards. Similarly, the CCTA was trying to get software metrics established in 1990. That's 20 years for anyone too old not to have noticed.

Metrics have been recommended by many a major report since. But nothing has been done, perhaps because government IT is in hock to a handful of large suppliers who have no interest in having their gluttonous bellies exposed.

The idea wot time forgot

"Software suppliers all measure their own performance and make healthy profits whilst the taxpayer suffers all the cost overruns and delays," said Charles Symons a consultant with Common Software Measurement International Consortium.

"But it is not in the suppliers' interests to educate their customers on how to manage them properly," he said. The Australian State government of Victoria managed it, and apparently did very well.

Other revolutionary remedies were suggestion to the PASC, and none of them were far removed from government policy: prohibit commercial in confidence, make the sub-contracting supply chain totally transparent, publish procurement costs and performance metrics, break up large IT contracts, insist that all government software is open source and replace the common waterfall software development model with iterative, agile development methods.

In short, Alex Stobart of Enterprising Scotland Limited told the committee: less competition, more collaboration.

That won't favour the dinosaurs, who have done well out of procurement laws imposed with strict adherence to the principles of competition. But What will follow, if the evolutionary metaphor stands, will be a period of adaptive radiation, when the innovators flourish.

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