Plans for government IT - offshoring, open source and restructures

After several months of silence, senior civil servants are starting to speak more about what the next few months might hold for central government IT.

After several months of silence, senior civil servants are starting to speak more about what the next few months might hold for central government IT.

Details of future plans for public sector IT have been scant since the establishment of the coalition government in May, but civil servants are now gearing up to make a raft of announcements after months of reviewing spending and strategy.

With the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) looming, departments are finishing their IT project reviews and waiting to hear an update on the IT moratorium.

Deputy government CIO Bill McCluggage says 419 IT projects have been reviewed across government, with most of them valued between £1m and £50m. "Only a very few - ID cards, Contactpoint and e-Borders for example - are over £50m," he said at an Intellect event last week. One possible move is for large IT projects to be split into smaller ones.

Spending stopped

He says a letter about the IT moratorium is expected to go out to departments soon, after prime minister David Cameron agreed the contents a couple of weeks ago. The morartorium put an immediate stop to all IT spending over £1m, and prohibited contracts being signed without approval from the Treasury.

McCluggage said the central IT team has looked at 140 reports on larger IT projects, only nine of which were worth less than £5m. He said new guideliness on signing big IT contracts will be published.

He said, "I'm not sure that the guidelines will radically change the landscape, but they will have an impact on value-for-money. They will go into the commercial aspect of how IT projects deliver value."

The central IT team at the Cabinet Office is now going through the guidelines with solicitors to check that there are no problems with the legal implications of the changes.

While the central IT team has been researching the bigger projects, departments have been filling out sets of forms on smaller projects. Each project has been pushed through a set of filters, McCluggage said, to decide which should be kept and which should be stopped. "We are driving through a harder-nosed commercial reality in terms of projects we expect the departments to be engaged in," he said.

Renegotiating contracts

Part of the project review process involves renegotiating contracts with suppliers, and Atos Origin was the first big name to announce a willingness to work under the government's new terms. The company is also working with the Scottish Executive on a similar deal. But McCluggage reported problems with some suppliers when it comes to talking about the government's new transparency agenda. It wants to publish details of IT projects and government spending, but some companies argue that pricing information is commercially sensitive, so they oppose some of the government's requirements. A set of guidelines for CIOs on offshoring is also being drawn up.

Overall, the approach to cost-cutting in public sector IT has two parts, according to McCluggage. The first is squeezing IT budgets, or treating it as a cost to be cut, which departments have already seen plenty of this year.

In the medium to long term, however, work will focus on producing new ideas and ways of saving money that also streamline and improve services.

McCluggage says the team wants savings that will come in three or four years at the latest, although it would prefer that they be delivered within two or three years. "It is a three- to four-year cycle, but our wish is to pull that forward and get the return on investment in year two or three. We have done the slice-and-dice activities, and in years two and three it is more of a case of asking what we change to get the return on investment early."

The Efficiency and Reform Group, which was formed this year to oversee government spending, met on Wednesday to discuss IT-led savings and the cross-government IT strategy.

Radical change

Ian Watmore, the former CIO at the Football Association and now chief operating officer of the ERG, is expected to make an announcement on 20 October relating to the organisational structure of parts of central government. His remit was to look for efficiencies in areas including IT, with McCluggage saying during his speech last week, "The Efficiency and Reform Group will provide a lot of opportunities for small and maybe radical change activity. It's about creating an environment of tight control over things like HR, and getting a real grip over how many people you employ. The IT element is a part of that."

The IT strategy which was published earlier this year is currently being finished, after a business case for it has been finalised. McCluggage said the team is looking for examples of return on investment on open source technology and having open standards, as part of a possible move into mandated open source use across government. The office of the government CIO has effectively split into two, he said, with McCluggage overseeing standards and strategy, and Lesley Hume and Chris Chant overseeing implementation.

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