We have talked of efficiency savings and good practice in the planning and procurement of government IT for over a decade. In the mid-1990s I chaired a group of more than 20 public sector heads of IT set the task of summarising a mountain of guidance into four pages (plus a guide to support material) The Proper Conduct of Public Business: conditions for IS in the public sector.
Our paper was welcomed by the then chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and by the comptroller and auditor general but ignored by everyone else. Thus has the past 15 years been littered by numerous failed government IT projects.
Last year we formed another group which summarised the current mountain of guidance to five pages: a page longer because, with Office of Government Commerce permission, we included some of its cartoons to make key points. However government ministers, like managing directors, tend not to read beyond the first page. We therefore summarised further to one side of A4.
This was welcomed by Stephen Timms, then chief secretary to the Treasury, as "a succinct summary of what the next generation needs to learn, to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past".
Overpaid compared with northern Europe
The UK government is said to pay about 30% more for equivalent IT services than Germany or Scandinavia but our suppliers are not noticeably more profitable. UK public sector procurements commonly take 18 months to two years of confidential bidding and negotiation. The rest of northern Europe average three to four months: albeit often preceded by a year or so of non-confidential "consultation".
PFIs and framework agreements have failed to narrow the gap. The complexity and inflexibility of PFI has proved neither efficient nor cost effective for the customer, nor profitable for most suppliers. Meanwhile, we have more than 70 duplicated, fragmented and semi-incompatible framework agreements: departments and agencies set up their own "unique" contracts and few capitalise on the good work of others. Even major suppliers cannot afford to sign up for all the frameworks. The most cost-effective suppliers often refuse to sign up for any.
We have admired the complexity of the problem for far too long. But over the past month the climate has changed. We risk irreparable damage to the ability of UK suppliers to meet public sector needs unless we can work together to bring forward those procurements that will genuinely deliver "more for less".
The good news is that, faced by budget cuts of more than 30%, departments, agencies and authorities are no longer looking at whether to co-operate but how to do so. The question is how many of their suppliers are ready to respond to that change.
The Information Society Alliance Public Service Delivery Group, of which I am the industry chair, is now working on a couple of short-order exercises to identify good practice in the procurement of shared network services and of security (sometimes considered to be a show-stopper for more efficient procurement).
My personal objective is to enable players to mix and match across existing framework agreements, improving quality and security at the same time as cutting out overheads on both sides (suppliers as well as buyers).
I'd also like to move fast so as to help ensure that business is indeed flowing again in the autumn, not just next spring or later. But to achieve this we will also need the rapid active support of a critical mass of suppliers, willing to co-operate in view of the opportunities for long-run profitability and competing on quality of service, not just on short-run headline cost.
Roger Marshall, past president of SOCITM, and industry chair, Public Service Delivery Group of the Information Society Alliance (EURIM)
This was first published in June 2010