Towards the Big Information Society - the challenges for the ICT industry

In my blog yesterday I promised to say more about the debate that I hope will be opened by the Conservative Technology Forum fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference. This will be on Sunday 2nd October, Exchange Rooms 5 and 6, 17.30 for 18.00.

The speakers on the 2nd will include Paul Bettison, leader of Bracknell Forest, which has already saved over half its IT operations budget by rationalising servers and communications from over a dozen networks to three.  Paul has however, said that trying to merge to a single network would have increased costs and that the next round of serious savings will come from sharing their networks and the services that go over them, with others. But that sharing has to be with like-minded others. Otherwise the overheads of negotiations, co-ordination and compromise will outweigh the benefits.

The aim is to complement Paul’s introductory comments with contributions from potential “Big Society” partners from the not-for-profit and commercial supply sides, including on the issues around using open source and mandating open inter-operability – plus, of course, a ministerial introduction or response.

The challenge to IT suppliers is profound if the Coalition Government is serious about devolving responsibility for the low cost innovative delivery of public services to a wide variety of local competitors, including small firms, public-private partnerships, co-operatives, charities etc.

That prospect is regarded as unthinkable by those whose background is selling centralised, standardised solutions to the consultants appointed by the mandarins of Whitehall. But, where there is evidence from comparable procurements, it would appear that competing planning and procurement networks, including co-operatives that make good use of the remaining in-house skills of local government, have produced better quality, flexibility and sustainability at between one and two thirds of the cost over the past decade.

 There are also said to be massive potential savings to be made from cutting the cost of dealing with the duplicated silos of Whitehall. Meanwhile Cabinet Office is said to be struggling to achieve 10% savings on its IT spend while requiring those who are already more efficient to achieve 30%.

Should major suppliers go with the tide and find ways of creating sustainable partnerships that will give sensible returns to their shareholders or should they join with Sir Humphrey and Alderman Clutterbeck in conserving the current cosy minuet of commercial confidential consortia – “because the alternative will soon end in unrealistic expectations, tears and remorse”.   

The areas for discussion include

·         open source and inter-operability versus proprietary,

·         theoretical economies of scale versus the overheads of centralisations,

·         intellectual corruption in high places versus mutual favours in low places

·         and so on.  

But at heart is the problem of improving the quality of planning, procurement, implementation and monitoring at the same time as achieving cost-savings of 30% in this round and more in the next – until we have clawed our way back to a public sector that spends no more than 40% of the nation’s wealth – and that proportion is falling, not rising.  

Think of this meeting as the start of the most challenging of the Conservative Technology Forum policy studies. Tell all those you know who are going to Conference that it is likely to be both topical and controversial – hence one of the reasons we did not line up anodyne speakers in time for the fringe guide. It is the one event at the party conferences at which IT professionals and well as users (alias victims) are likely to speak their minds.

I particularly  wish, however, hear from local councillors and those from current and would-be “Big Society” partners who are in the front-line of finding sustainable solutions.

Those who just want to throw rocks, old or new, can go elsewhere. The witch hunts on past failures are now under way. I’m far more interested in how we move forward – although practical ideas on how to get rid of albatross PFI and other outsourcing contracts would be most welcome.  

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