Does Labour really plan to return to "delayed big bang" for government IT projects?

No wonder the cartel who brought us the NHS National Plan for IT, the re-creation of the BT communications monopoly, overpriced and inefficient PFIs and all those other massively expensive, wasteful and under-performing central government “delayed big bang projects” are cosying up to those planning the Labour Party Digital Government strategy. Just read the Labour plans to scrap the incremental change programme that Ian Duncan Smith has finally succeeded in imposing on DWP and its suppliers.

I have blogged on this theme many times before , linking what was happening with the DWP programme, despite clear ministerial instructions on the need to follow an incremental path in line with good professional practice for major change programmes. Now it is apparent that at least part of Labour Party is still in thrall to those who advised them on IT policy during the run up to 1997 election.

I liked many of the questions being asked in some of the calls for evidence for the Digital Government consultations organised by Chi Onwurah: albeit I thought they focussed on the tactical rather than the strategic. Now we can begin to understand that focus.  Whatever recommendations come out of the studies, the cartel who have run UK public sector ICT for the past twenty years still expect to be able to recoup their recent losses after a Labour victory.

Those who wish to prove them wrong need to submit robust inputs to the Labour and LibDem policy studies, not just those of the Conservatives.

The divisions are not along party lines. There are similar divisions in all parties, between those technophiles who believe that this time we have learned from the past and that better planned BIG projects using BIG data will do it better, faster, using the latest cloud technology and those who believe that the problems are to do with BIG organisations (including BIG suppliers and BIG consultancies) planning BIG projects which cannot be delivered before the requirements and organisational structures, let alone the technologies, have changed.

The time has come to follow good practice. By all means think ambitious and integrated vision and architectures. But then think frameworks for co-operation across silo boundaries, focus on inter-operability standards at all levels and rebuild public sector delivery skills around incremental change projects which help build and reinforce those frameworks.

In this context I welcome the long overdue re-orientation of DWP around pilot pathways to identify and test the people processes before investing in technology. “Merely” employing an army of expensive consultant to look at theory is no substitute.

Meanwhile if we want a review of a progamme that is in trouble let us take a good look at “Civil Service Learning” – arguable the most important programme of them all, assuming we wnat to rebuild the skills of central government as an intelligent customer. The core quesitons do not relate to costs but to the number of officials, receiving which training to which standards over the past year.            

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Churchill defined a fanatic as someone who "can't change his mind and won't change the subject". After nearly nine months of enquiry, the OFT found no evidence of anticompetitive practices and concluded that "outsourced ICT in the public sector does not appear to be highly concentrated", yet despite this people like Mr Virgo now seem to feel sufficiently emboldened to move on from calling large firms an oligopoly to leveling the accusation that they have run a cartel (an illegal act). I don't particularly care whether he can't change his mind, but it really is time he changed the subject. Or perhaps just shut up all together.

Chris Keeler is, of course, correct. I was indeed careless and should have used the term "oligopoly" for the twenty or so players who still account for over 80% of central government ICT spend and related outsourcing. The new business passing through the PSN and G-Cloud framework agreements is indeed not so concentrated - but is, as yet, so low that the headline analysis of spend remains little altered. Just as "good practice" in programme and project management has not changed radically since the construction of HMS Dreadnought in 1906, the Mulberry Harbours in 1943 - 4, The Polaris Fleet (may not have been to budget but to time, the missiles fitted the submarines and the test firings went to plan), the original computerisation of PAYE or the conversation of the UK Payment Clearing systems and ATM networks to Internet Protocols and EMV standards (arguably the world's biggest ever ICT change programme).