Defra pushes ahead with high-risk outsourcing despite MPs' warnings

The Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) is preparing to outsource its whole IT provision, despite the fact...

The Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) is preparing to outsource its whole IT provision, despite the fact that it is advertising for an IT director and has no clear IT strategy.

Defra permanent secretary Brian Bender has admitted that it is a high-risk strategy.

The House of Commons environment, food and rural affairs select committee last month warned the department to postpone outsourcing until it had devised an IT strategy and recruited an IT director. Yet the contract is be advertised by the end of the year, with the procurement process expected to last 14 to 18 months.

More than 850 jobs could be transferred to the private sector if the proposals go through.

In January, the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) conducted a strategic assessment of Defra's outsourcing proposal. It warned ministers that it would be a very high-risk project and identified a shortfall in skills and resources. It also called for Defra to design a future IT architecture and recruit an IT director with extensive experience of outsourcing.

The OGC report said, "Failure to put in place a strong commercial team will result in a worse position than the status quo."

In June, Bender told the select committee that the department had not yet recruited an IT director, prompting David Taylor MP, a former IT professional, to warn that IT outsourcers "will eat you alive".

Despite this, the department is pressing ahead with outsourcing. Defra's IT strategy being developed as a priority, the management board said.

"This will be completed well before any signature of IT outsourcing contracts, so we are satisfied that we will be able to meet the committee's concerns," an official report of the board meeting stated.

Tony Lock, analyst at Bloor Research, said, "Before you go into any service delivery process you have to have someone who understands the needs of the organisation and where it is going. You have to understand the problem before you can devise the solution."

Giga Group analyst Mike Dodd agreed. The Defra IT strategy must be well developed before the Department goes to the market. In the formal request for proposals, "Defra needs its objectives set down in clear, well defined, measurable terms. If they aren't the procurement could be heading for trouble."

The Department could face strong resistance from trade unions. Marilyn Bayes, an official representing Defra IT staff in the PCS union, said, "Defra senior management have little or no understanding of IT. They regard IT as a simple service that can be purchased from external suppliers like a cleaning contract."

The unions, she said, are arguing a business case for retaining staff in-house staff and have not ruled out industrial action to block the outsourcing.

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