Government digital chief signals move away from 'tower model' approach to IT outsourcing

Government digital chief Mike Bracken has signalled a move away from the “tower model” approach to IT outsourcing

Government digital chief Mike Bracken has signalled a move away from the “tower model” approach to IT as Whitehall prepares for the end of its biggest outsourcing deals over the next few years.

As departments have come to the end of the long-term, large-scale IT contracts signed under the Labour government, many have adopted the so-called tower model, whereby the deal is broken down into component services, and each of those parts is outsourced to a specialist supplier.

The whole thing is pulled together either by an in-house team or a third-party service integrator. The departments for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Energy and Climate Change (DECC) were among the first to make such a move earlier this year. The Treasury has also started a project to move to a tower-style arrangement for purchasing IT. 

But Mike Bracken, executive director of the Government Digital Service, told Computer Weekly in an exclusive interview that the tower model is not the long-term solution.

“The tower model we inherited is not the technology strategy – it isn’t what we aspire to. We don’t want departments making decisions now to adopt the tower model – however, we have to recognise a lot of that is in train so we accept what happened, it is better than what preceded it. At least it breaks it down into addressable parts,” he said.

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“It’s a good interim stage, but it’s not where we want to be, which is a genuinely disaggregated open infrastructure where we can have a genuinely interoperable government architecture.”

Bracken cited the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and DVLA as examples of how he would like departments to move forward.

“At the moment we have a sort of ‘retire, replace, reform’ opportunity. In this parliament we’ve done more of the extend/replace than the other two. Now that we have places like DVLA, MoJ and others with a new architecture that is interoperable, there is more of a willingness to do the ‘retire and reform’,” he said.

In the next few years, the government’s biggest outsourcing deals – at HM Revenue & Customs, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions – will come to an end and will not be replaced in their current form. 

The Home Office is also moving away from two large outsourcing deals by breaking its requirements down into a number of different contracts to be let to smaller, specialist suppliers through the G-Cloud framework, and will be undertaking the service integration in-house. The department said this disaggregated model is distinct from a traditional tower-style arrangement. 

Bracken does not rule out short-term extensions to some aspects of current deals, but said the existing siloed, department-oriented approach to IT is coming to an end.

“Can you do it all at once? No. There have been tactical extensions, and there may well be in the future, but they will be our tactical extensions,” he said.

“Many industries have moved their underlying technical model. It may well be that we take various services that work and make them interoperable. When you think about how you reform an entire silo, you take parts of that and make it into a platform. What you’ll see is much more platform thinking.”

The tower model we inherited is not the technology strategy – it isn’t what we aspire to

Mike Bracken, Government Digital Service

Some early moves to the tower model approach proved unpopular with suppliers too. Early procurement projects two years ago at the MoJ and the Foreign Office saw many suppliers withdraw from the bidding process.

Other public sector bodies such as the BBC and the Post Office are also looking to replace their large outsourcing deals with multiple, smaller contracts under a tower model.

The new approach at BIS and DECC attracted some controversy after teething troubles in the transition from old to new suppliers led business secretary Vince Cable to complain to David Cameron about problems with network connectivity.

The government hopes that moving away from the approach of mega-outsourcing deals with big suppliers will encourage more SMEs to bid for contracts, increasing competition and reducing IT spending. But many of those big IT suppliers are resistant to such a change.

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