Election countdown begins for Whitehall IT reforms

Two years from this week, it’s the next General Election.

Unless the Coalition collapses before 7 May 2015, the election date is fixed and immovable. That means there are just 24 months left for the IT reformers in government to make their changes equally immovable before the political will behind them potentially dissipates.

They have a lot to do.

In the three years since Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude set about tackling the IT oligopoly of big suppliers that dominates Whitehall IT, and so reduce the annual £16bn IT budget, much has been achieved.

We have a mandatory open standards policy; the first ever preference for open source built into the Digital Strategy; a cloud-first-policy emerging through the G-Cloud; and significant savings made from existing, long-term contracts with that oligopoly.

Just this week, we’ve also seen an important milestone as all the government departments completed their move to the new, open-source, agile-developed Gov.UK website – at a much reduced cost from its predecessor, Directgov.

But it’s equally easy for the critics to claim that apart from some lengthy documents, a new website, and a mere few millions pounds spent through G-Cloud, it would not be difficult to see a return to the bad old ways if the political clout enforced by Maude were to disappear.

Certainly the big system integrators are quietly confident that the irresistible force of change will not become an immovable object – this article quoting a senior HP executive published by Kable demonstrates just that, while also demonstrating how the big suppliers completely misunderstand what the reforms are all about.

Several big outsourcing deals come up for renewal between now and the election, and it will be instructive to see what happens and whether they will be extended. The response Computer Weekly received from the Department of Energy and Climate Change suggests it sees a future away from its incumbent supplier when its contract ends in 2014.

Without doubt there is a growing mood of IT reform across Whitehall – finally spreading to some of the formerly doubting departments, even if there are still tensions between the centre and some of the departmental IT teams.

Already some of the advisors closest to government CTO Liam Maxwell are forging links with Labour and the shadow cabinet in the hope of gaining cross-party support to ensure the reform process can continue regardless of the electoral victor. Don’t be surprised to see a debate about which party is the more “open” as the next two years count down. Wouldn’t it be great if IT reform became an election issue at some level.

But the biggest challenges for reform lie ahead.

A static, informational website is one thing, online transactions are another – the biggest test of the digital strategy will be when citizens are transacting with government online, not just searching for information.

The flagship of “digital by default” was to be Universal Credit, the biggest IT project in Whitehall and increasingly the most troubled. Already many of its digital initiatives, such as identity assurance, have been stripped out.

And the plans for open standards have yet to be tested in a major project – the Microsofts and Oracles of the world are not going to take it idly on the chin if they are excluded for non-conformance.

But there’s an undeniable buzz around Whitehall IT and the digital reforms, and that in itself is a measure of the achievement so far. The target has to be that by 7 May 2015, we no longer call these “reforms” but business as usual.

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