The UK government sometimes pays 10 times as much as the standard commercial rate for IT projects, is overly reliant on an oligopoly of major suppliers, and "urgently" needs to rebuild its in-house IT skills to reduce the dependence on outsourcing, according to a scathingly critical report by MPs.
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An inquiry by the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) into government IT strategy found the current approach to technology has led to a "perverse situation" in which successive governments have "wasted an obscene amount of public money".
The report described government's record in developing and implementing new IT systems as "appalling".
In a series of criticisms and related recommendations, the PASC inquiry said:
- Government does not have enough information about its own IT, which means it is unable to compare the price it pays with the private sector or even other areas of the public sector.
- There is too little transparency in IT contracts. Government should publish more details about costs, system specifications and IT contracts to allow an open debate and input from external experts who could find improvements.
- Government is overly reliant on a small group of dominant suppliers, described by some witnesses to the inquiry as a "cartel". Standards, interoperability, and commoditisation must be used to widen the supplier base, and in particular reduce the size of contracts and engage directly with innovate SME suppliers.
- Too often, government IT systems are out of date before development is finished. The use of agile and iterative methods is needed to cater for the constantly changing nature of the task.
- Too much outsourcing means that IT skills have been transferred to suppliers. The government has to bring those skills back-in house and rebuild its capabilities so it can better manage suppliers and understand how to deliver successful projects.
"This government, like many before it, has set out an ambitious programme aimed at reforming how it uses IT. We are greatly encouraged by the government's plans, and we promote a number of solutions which can transform how we deliver public services online," said PASC chairman Bernard Jenkin.
"We will need to wait and see whether it can make progress in an area that has resisted so many previous attempts at reform."
The report acknowledged the attempts by the current government to reform its approach to IT, but warned that this is not the first time such a plan has been introduced.
"Government IT does not have a happy history. The last 10 years have seen several failed attempts at reform. The current government seems determined to succeed where others have failed and we are greatly encouraged by its progress to date," said the report.
"Numerous challenges remain and fundamentally transforming how government uses IT will require departments to engage more directly with innovative firms, to integrate technology into policy-making and reform how they develop their systems. The fundamental requirement is that government needs the right skills, knowledge and capacity in-house to deliver these changes. Without the ability to engage with IT suppliers as an intelligent customer - able to secure the most efficient deal and benchmark its costs - and to understand the role technology can play in the delivery of public services, government is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past."