What difference will the election make to Central and Local Government IT?

Now that the ministerial appointments have been made we can make a reasonable forecast of what is likely to happen to central and local government IT over the 18 months. That is the period the new government has in order to deliver results that will enable to Prime Minister to go out on a high, having agreed devo-max for Scotland, won the EU referendum (on the back of an agreed  tax and regulation reform package) and been seen to have set the UK finances and economy on the path to permanent recovery.

Bryan Glick is likely to be disappointed in his recent forecast.  If ministers are successful, the surprise with regard to central government IT will be a lack of surprises. The current big contracts are unlikely to be replaced by new big contracts. Instead HMRC and DWP will quietly continue rebuilding their in-house expertise to enable the incremental rationalisation and consolidation of both tax and benefits systems, without complex inflexible outsource contracts getting in the way. One of the lessons that John Manzoni (to whom GDS et al report) learned from his time at BP was that risk cannot be outsourced.  Now that all Central Government ‘Senior Responsible Owners’ are expected to have passed through the Major Projects Leadership  Academy  there is likely to be an incremental trend towards ‘rightsourcing’, bringing control of strategic planning, procurement and ‘architecture’ back in house. The measure of success will be that used by Richard Holway: ‘boring’ – a steady lack of surprises while delivering value for money, quality of service, shareholder value etc. etc. . In other words the flow of project bidding and contract award, let alone ‘bad news’, stories for Computer Weekly to cover should begin to dry up.

The Matt Hancock‘s IT background may have been limited to a spell in the family software house (how times have changed that you can say that of a minister) but his work at BIS on upgrading the quality, not just quantity,  of apprenticeship programmes was impressive. We can expect a strong drive to improve the in-house skills of the civil service at all levels. We can also expect a quiet tapering away of the ‘semi-automatic’ extension and renewal  of current outsourcing contracts and framework. The GDS will, hopefully, morph into a competent 21st century equivalent of the CCTA in its heyday, policing procurements and contracts rather than trying to deliver them itself, providing support services only for those departments too small to merit professional in-house IT of their own, using these to also develop and maintain the technical skills that it needs to do planning and monitoring.  The sorry saga at Defra means, however, that attempts to take responsibility for serious, time-critical, operational systems, of any size, are likely to be avoided for the next year or so.

I hope that rumours of a watering down of the Osborne requirement that the responsible minister, not just ‘a senior official’ be able to use a system before it goes live with end users are untrue. The pressure for watering down is supposedly a result of having to involve a Defra minister in iterative hands-on testing earlier this year. There may well be a need to refine the approach, e.g. with senior officials involved in beta testing, engaging ministers only when they are asked to approve roll-out. It is, however, a long overdue discipline. If ministers lack the time, perhaps they might be allowed to invite members of the Select Committee monitoring their department to deputise for them, rather than risk signing off yet another system, or website, that is unfit for use by its target audience.          

When it comes to the impact of the election on local government IT we need to look at the appointments at DCLG. All but one  of the new ministerial team have been local government councilors and three (out of five) are former council leaders.  We can expect the devolution of authority and responsibility to local government to gather pace, not just to those areas which choose to elect mayors.  Given that, on average, Local Government spends less than half that spent by central government for equivalent IT products and services, we can expect them to give short shrift to proposals to enhance the role of Cabinet Office vis a vis their systems.  We can, however, also expect no let up on the pressure to use bottom up cross-boundary co-operation to deliver more and better for less. Here I would like to make a modest proposal, not in any previous policy papers: that central government  IT operations and their contractors (including any framework deals) be required to join the relevant SOCITM benchmarking operations and explain their performance to the National Audit Office.

The future of local government IT will depend in large part on the availability of broadband that is fit for purpose. That entails ubiquitous access to cloud-based services by those delivering front-line services: from carers and community nurses to property maintenance and environmental services. The appointment of the long-serving chairman of the DCMS Select Committee to Secretary of State was inspired. Not only can we soon expect the BBC to be subjected to the tender regulatory mercies of an Ofcom chaired by some-one who knows well both its strengths  and weaknesses  we can also expect a robust review of the performance of BDUK from the MP for Maldon , where none of the exchanges currently offers more than ‘up to 8 mbps’ and mobile cover is little better than that in West Dorset, whose MP  once complained to me that ‘the whole of my constituency is a not spot’.  That review will be all the better because of the experience, sometimes very painful, that Ed Vaizey has acquired in observing how how ministerial wishes can be interpreted in such a way as to achieve almost the opposite of what was intended. The good new is ministers and officials now appear to be singing from the same hymn sheet and to have a clear way forward in mind.  

It was no coincidence that immediately after the election it was announced that Gigaclear (who already operate 23 rural networks and are building 31 more) was to receive a further 30 million in funding from the City. We can expect more such announcements to come now that the climate for Plan B is ripe.