IBM and open government

After The Times yesterday published the results of a joint investigation with Computer Weekly over government IT projects – contracts have cost at least £18bn more than first announced – a public sector employee has emailed to ask me why there was no mention of IBM.

IBM was the prime contractor on one of the projects mentioned in The Times – the Scope system for the intelligence services. But IBM’s name was not mentioned.

As The Times says, the government is secretive about its IT contracts. Sometimes the government does not want Parliament or anyone else to know the name of the main IT contractor. This is despite the fact that Scope is on the list of the government’s highest-priority “mission-critical” projects.

I understand from separate sources that IBM is the Cabinet Office’s Scope system contractor, though neither the Cabinet Office nor IBM will comment.

Much has written about Scope – links below.

IBM is one of the more cautious IT suppliers in government. Its bid prices are usually not the cheapest because it’s realistic in anticipating its costs and profits. But it has not avoided controversy altogether.

In the 1990s there was criticism by auditors of secrecy over dealings at the then Wessex Regional Health Authority. The authority did many things wrong. Among them was the purchase of an IBM (3090) mainframe without a competitive tender  – contrary to regional, departmental and EC tendering rules and regulations.

Last year the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee reviewed the Department of Transport’s “Shared Transformation Programme”, a project which involved the department and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.

Rather than go to a specific open, competitive tender for a shared service system the Department chose IBM, which it did to save money and time. IBM was already the main IT supplier to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. 

The shared services plan did not work out as planned, largely because the Department took short cuts and had an over-optimistic time-frame.

IBM has not avoided controversy over its contracts with Somerset County Council on a £400m outsourcing deal to set up Southwest One. Has IBM been unduly secretive?

As for progress on Scope, the Cabinet Office won’t discuss it. Open government, at least on IT projects and contracts, remains a hope and not a reality.


PS: Every major project in government is supposed to have one senior responsible owner to see the scheme through from conception to the delivery of benefits. But Downing Street appointed as Scope’s senior responsible owner a senior (and much respected) civil servant who was due to retire – Sir Richard Mottram.

That’s the sort of real-world cynicism that parodies Private Eye’s humour.


Government freezes scope – Kablenet

Scope faces delays – BBC online, 2005 

Scope is up to five years late – Computer Weekly

SouthWest One – James Barlow blog

IBM seeks to stop council divulging £400m contract details – IT Projects blog

Southwest One – its website