News Analysis

Highlights from 'A recipe for rip-offs' - the Select Committee report on government IT

Bryan Glick

The Public Administration Select Committee has published a scathingly critical report on government's use of IT.

The MPs went into great detail on the failings - and opportunities - of Whitehall IT, but to save readers the task of working your way through the entire 60-page report (although if you want to, you can browse through it here), we selected a few of the choice quotes used by MPs to highlight the problems of government technology:

  • Despite a number of successful initiatives, government's overall record in developing and implementing new IT systems is appalling. The lack of IT skills in government and over-reliance on contracting out is a fundamental problem which has been described as a "recipe for rip-offs".
  • The UK has been described as "a world leader in ineffective IT schemes for government".
  • The data [the committee] needed to assess the current state of government IT proved hard to come by.
  • According to the UK Central Government IT Benchmarking Study conducted by Gartner in 2005, median total cost of ownership per government desktop was running at £2,300, when best practice was around £1,800 a year Other figures have shown that the Cabinet Office spent an average of £3,664 per desktop computer for each full-time employee. At a time when the annual deficit is necessitating large reductions in public spending, such waste is unacceptable.
  • There are 6,000 pages of guidance that went out from the Office of Government Commerce on big IT procurements.
  • Having access to up-to-date and accurate information about government IT is essential if the government is to reform its IT successfully. Without it the Cabinet Office will be unable to monitor and enforce its programme of reforms. We were particularly shocked to learn that, on coming to office, the Minister had to ask the IT suppliers for information about the value of their contracts.
  • The poor benchmarking of central government's IT expenditure is unacceptable. Without this information it will not be possible for the government to advance effectively its cost reduction agenda. We recommend that the government should investigate the claims of overcharging put to us and seek to identify reliable and comparable cost benchmarks.
  • The government should publish in full all [IT] contracts. It should publish as much information as possible about how it runs its IT to enable effective benchmarking and to allow external experts to suggest different and more economical and effective ways of running its systems. Feedback it receives based on this information should be used to challenge and hold to account current providers, and to renegotiate, disaggregate and re-compete existing contracts where it becomes clear that more cost effective delivery mechanisms are available
  • Extremely serious allegations have been made about the behaviour of some large suppliers. There are clearly very strong feelings on both sides of this debate The government should urgently commission an independent, external investigation to determine whether there is substance to these serious allegations of anti-competitive behaviour and collusion.
  • We recommend that the government develop a strategy to either replace legacy systems with newer, less costly systems, or open up the intellectual property rights to competitors.
  • The government's plan to act as a single buyer appears to be leading to a consolidation towards a few large suppliers. This could act against its intention to reduce the size of contracts and increase the number of SMEs that it contracts with directly.
  • The way procurement currently operates favours large companies that can afford to commit the staff and resources to navigate the convoluted processes. It also encourages the government to confine discussions to as few potential contractors as possible. If the government is serious about increasing the amount of work it awards to SMEs it must simplify the existing processes.
  • The government must stop departments specifying IT solutions and ensure they specify what outcomes they wish to achieve.
  • The government should examine how it can remove barriers to agile development as an integrated part of its wider efforts to reform the procurement process and increase the role of SMEs.
  • Currently the government seems unable to strike the right balance between allowing contractors enough freedom to operate and ensuring there are appropriate controls and monitoring in-house. The government needs to develop the skills necessary to fill this gap. This should involve recruiting more IT professionals with experience of the SME sector to help deliver the objective of greater SME involvement.
  • Knowledge about how modern information systems and technology can be used to improve public services should not be restricted to the IT profession - this knowledge is essential to the work of all senior civil servants.
  • Ministers should take a personal interest in the leadership of politically sensitive programmes.
  • Government should omit references to proprietary products and formats in procurement notices, stipulating business requirements based on open standards. The government should also ensure that new projects, programmes and contracts, and where possible existing projects and contracts, mandate open public data and open interfaces to access such data by default.
  • Moving to a model where the citizen maintains their own personal data with an independent, trusted provider and then can choose whether to authorise the sharing of that information with other organisations is an ambitious vision that will need to be trialled extensively.
  • Government should open up online service delivery to non-public sector organisations and explore ways in which public services can be offered through other websites, applications, devices and providers.

Read our previous coverage of the PASC inquiry here >>


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