Tories pledge radical reform of public sector IT

Publication of all IT contracts and Gateway reviews are among the Conservatives’ pledges should the party take office in the upcoming election. Tony Collins reports.

The Conservative Party says it intends to publish all IT contracts and Gateway project reviews. But the pledge, which is outlined in a paper on its information technology and communications strategy, is likely to be opposed by senior civil servants who have convinced successive Labour ministers of the need for continued secrecy over IT projects.

The Conservatives have also pledged to impose a moratorium on existing and upcoming procurements, and immediately establish a presumption that IT projects should not exceed £100m. They have further promised to scrap failing projects and to encourage government bodies to use open source, rather than proprietary software.

The Tories revealed their plans in "Delivering Change", which set out a draft version of their approach to government IT, in December. Now Conservative Central Office has confirmed in writing to Computer Weekly that the draft proposals are official party policy which will be implemented if it wins the upcoming election.

Francis Maude, Conservative shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, says the contents of the strategy paper represent "our stated intentions" but could be changed or added to if there were "compelling arguments" to do so.

"Our expectation is that we will implement what we set out [in the paper] but do not have dogmatically closed minds. Our expectation is that these will be our policies," he says.

Openness pledge

The party’s commitment to openness on IT projects is the boldest part of its strategy document. Computer Weekly has campaigned for several years for Gateway reviews to be published, as it would allow those involved in them, including IT departments, users and suppliers, to see whether large projects were progressing or not.

Whether civil servants will allow the Conservatives to implement radical changes, including routinely publishing IT contracts and Gateway reviews, which are short, independent assessments of medium and high-risk IT projects, is a different question.

The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) has always refused requests to publish Gateway reviews under the Freedom of Information Act, at least until they are several years old.

On one case alone, the OGC spent £121,000 in legal costs to overturn an order from the information commissioner to publish old Gateway reviews on the ID card scheme.

But the Conservatives say that, if elected, they will publish the reviews immediately. "Only in this way will there be genuine accountability for progress on projects. Continued secrecy will lead to continued fudging of issues, both by public servants, to protect their jobs, and by politicians, to protect their reputations," says the strategy paper.

Labour response

Computer Weekly asked the headquarters staff at the Labour Party for a formal response to the Tories’ promise of a moratorium on existing and upcoming projects and the publication of all technology contracts and Gateway reviews. A Labour spokesman made it clear that his party has no such plans.

"The Tories’ IT strategy is simply a rehashing of old announcements. By contrast, we will be setting out a new strategy which reaffirms our commitment to be smarter, greener and cheaper, and to provide more effective and efficient services to the public," he said.

Since that statement, Labour has published its UK Government IT Strategy. Its focus is on incremental improvement and more internal – as opposed to external – scrutiny of large projects.

Labour makes no pledges on more openness, but promises savings of £3.2bn a year and a simplification and standardisation of IT across the public sector over 10 years.

The party’s critics are likely to argue that the figures on savings are not subject to audit and it is unclear how the savings will be achieved.

Reality check

Meanwhile, critics of the Conservatives’ IT policy can argue that pledges are made easily in opposition, when shadow ministers have not had the benefit of civil service briefings on why openness cannot be achieved.

On the other hand, it is hard to argue with the principles of openness and accountability which run through many of the IT pledges of the Conservative Party. But the civil service is notoriously reactionary – and secretive.

Nobody will be surprised if the civil service says "No, minister" when the Conservatives insist on publishing up-to-date Gateway reviews and IT contracts.

And it is easy for the Conservatives to say they will "establish a presumption that IT projects should not exceed £100m in total value". But when civil servants at HM Revenue and Customs show that they can collect billions in extra tax, or save hundreds of millions on administration in return for an investment of £350m over 10 years, will the Tories wish they had not made the pledges they have?

The Conservatives’ strategy paper looks strong and impressive at face value. But it faces many challenges before it gets as far as implementation.


 Conservative IT policy

 If elected, the Conservatives plan to:

  • Throw open the policy-making process to crowd-sourcing and collaborative design.
  • Impose a moratorium on existing and upcoming procurements.
  • Strengthen the central role of CIOs, giving them greater responsibility for the effective management and delivery of projects.
  • Immediately establish a presumption that IT projects should not exceed £100m in total value.
  • Build a register of IT-related assets across government, including intellectual property rights, so that taxpayers do not pay for material they already own.
  • Expect senior responsible owners (SROs), the designated owners of IT projects, to remain in that role for the life of the project. SROs may be promoted in post while running a large project so that this does not hold back careers.
  • Minimise changes to contracts.
  • Publish Gateway reviews on a central website to allow the public to scrutinise the value and progress of a project.
  • Publish all IT contracts.
  • Scrap failing projects.
  • Encourage the use of open source software.
  • Where open source options are inferior, assess whether it is worth paying a third party to upgrade an open source solution rather than buy proprietary software.
  • Provide more opportunities for smaller, UK-based suppliers.
  • Ask SROs to publish their plans online via low-cost platforms such as blogs.
  • Redesign the NHS IT scheme and give patients more control of their medical records.
  • Review big databases, and scrap ID cards and ContactPoint.
  • Publish every item of spending over £25,000, enabling the public to see how and where the government is spending their money.
  • Require local councils to publish online details of all expenditure over £1,000.
  • Introduce a new right to government data so that the public can receive government datasets containing anonymised information that may be socially or commercially useful.

Source: Make IT Better, The Conservative Party

IT industry on Tory pledges

Sureyya Cansoy, associate director at IT suppliers’ trade association Intellect:

"Intellect is supportive of the idea that senior responsible owners (SROs) should stay in their role for the duration of their projects, including both the procurement and delivery phases of a project.

"It is vital that SROs have the appropriate levels of seniority and experience to oversee the programmes they are responsible for.

"I am also pleased to see that the Conservatives recognise the important role of the CIO in their IT strategy. Strengthening this role and providing government CIOs with the appropriate level of seniority, as well as including them at the early stages of planning, is vital to ensuring the success of government IT projects.

"Any IT project is really about driving business change. We would like to see a greater emphasis on outcomes in the procurement process rather than on IT as an end in itself."

David Clarke, chief executive, BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT:

"As The Chartered Institute for IT, we are politically independent and cannot endorse the policies of any political party. However, we welcome the higher profile that IT-related issues are currently receiving as we run up towards an election.

"Many of the fundamental issues surrounding IT-enabled projects in the public sector are well understood, but extremely difficult to address. It is important to increase the visibility and understanding of the issues among politicians, senior civil servants and the wider public, and it is good to see solutions on the political agenda.

"The Institute believes that government needs to cultivate ‘intelligent customer’ capability, and Conservative proposals make a number of important moves in that direction.

"It is important to recognise, however, the progress that has been made by the Cabinet Office and OGC in their professional and informed approach to large programmes.

"There is clearly more to do, and the Institute welcomes any move that recognises the important role IT plays in both policy and UK plc, and we encourage senior civil servants and ministers to take a strategic interest.

"The Institute also believes that any government that truly supports a strong, professional IT sector, as these proposals would seem to, should require senior IT positions to hold Chartered IT Professional status in the same way that other major professions such as accounting, law and medicine require a recognised professional attribution."


A number of Tory pledges on broadband are already in place

There is less than meets the eye to Conservative Party promises to enable "most homes" to get "up to" 100Mbps broadband access by 2017, writes Ian Grant. Most of the measures they will take are already either in place or subject to review. The Tories would:

  • Create a new regulatory framework to ensure the roll-out of 100Mbps networks to two-thirds of homes. But Virgin Media already covers more than half of homes with 50Mbps fibre, and it could roll out 200Mbps in six months. BT is catching up.
  • End BT’s local loop monopoly by allowing other operators to use BT’s ducts and poles to build their own networks. But local loop unbundling has been around since 2005. Access to ducts is a mixed blessing, and would be mostly negated by fair rating of fibre for BT and its competitors.
  • Possibly force utilities to share their infrastructure with broadband networks. But many utility owners already do this, and with the national smart meter project, may even compete with network operators.
  • Possibly use part of the BBC’s licence fee to leverage high-speed deployments to remote areas.
  • Change the business rates system to ensure that all operators pay the same rate per lit fibre-kilometre, without harming the Treasury’s take. This would address what Eurim, a parliamentary-industry body, calls the biggest hurdle to broadband investment. But it is only a review, not a commitment.
  • Change building regulations to force builders to provide "superfast-ready" new homes. But what about retro-fitting the rest?


Tories to limit IT visas

If elected the Conservatives would introduce a limit on the number of overseas IT workers allowed into the UK on intra-company transfers (ICTs) if they win the election, writes Karl Flinders.

The move could mean thousands fewer Indian IT professionals would be working in the UK.

"The one big gap in the points-based system is that there is no overall limit on how many permits can be issued in any one year," said shadow immigration minister Damian Green.

Seven Indian companies accounted for 43% of the IT workers entering the UK on ICTs last year, according to figures obtained by the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (Apsco). The total number of IT workers coming in on ICTs was 29,240, with 12,573 working for the Indian firms.

"It seems extraordinary that when British workers can’t find jobs we are bringing foreign workers from halfway round the world. This is another sign that Gordon Brown’s ‘British jobs for British workers’ was a meaningless sound bite," said Green.

The Conservatives plan to keep the existing points-based system, which allows IT professionals into the UK, if they score highly enough on a range of measures. But the numbers will be capped.

Read more on IT strategy