The government's plan to increase sharing of services between departments means a return to a mainframe model of information processing, John Suffolk, the government's chief information officer, said today.
In doing so, the government hopes to save 20% of the cost of providing desktop processing, and for shared services to cut another 20% from the government's £14bn annual information technology bill from savings in others areas such as staff and software licences.
"(Research firm) AT Kearney published some figures on shared services recently that suggest our goals are quite realistic," Suffolk said.
Reporting today on the plan's progress, Suffolk said all major central government departments have at least one shared service scheme under way. The next step is to negotiate details and service levels with potential clients.
Suffolk said departments will find money for IT projects scarcer in future. He said the total savings expected from shared services had not yet been calculated, and might not lead to less cash being spent. "It depends on what government objectives must be delivered," he said.
The overall plan is to have large central government departments, such as the ministries of Defence, Agriculture or the Environment, Forestry and Agriculture consolidate the number of applications they run for business processes such as finance and human resources, and then to offer to do the same processing on behalf of its "agents". These are "family-related" client departments that have a natural affinity with the host department because of their nature of business or location.
The Transformational Government implementation plan published in March 2006 committed the government to publishing nine shared service sector plans. These plans guide the development and implementation of shared services within each sector over the next three to seven years.
Suffolk hopes other departments will piggyback on or copy the seven-year Flex contract for "greener" thin client hardware and software the Cabinet Office negotiated with Fujitsu, and a shared services arrangement with the Department for Works & Pensions.
"We are not holding anyone to it, but we are saying (to other departments) if you can do better then we want to copy your contract," he said.
Suffolk said more departments are turning to a computing model that involved a "thin client" enabled through a web browser. This was to reduce complexity and risk, improve security and save costs at the desktop.
"Complexity adds cost. We are also paying for a lot of stuff on the desktop that we do not need. Thin client and browser is a way for many of us to go because anything else is too complex," said Suffolk.
Asked if this meant a return to mainframe style computing, Suffolk said it looked like it. "And if you look at mainframes sales, they are not dropping," he said.
While Suffolk is concentrating on central government departments, local government is also expected to do more to share services.
Suffolk said in some respects local government bodies are further ahead than their central peers. This was because many are already outsourcing services to third parties, and are thus familiar with their dangers and opportunities.