IT industry lashes out over government procurement policies

The UK IT industry has criticised the lack of clarity surrounding changes to government IT procurement plans

The UK IT industry has criticised the lack of clarity surrounding changes to government IT procurement plans, claiming further uncertainty has the potential to cost the UK economy thousands of jobs and billions of pounds.

According to IT trade association TechUK, engagement between the technology industry and the UK government injects £100bn into the UK economy and creates more than 500,000 jobs.

But the government’s recent announcements regarding its approach to buying IT has caused TechUK members “some alarm” and may deter firms from investing in the public sector in the future, said the trade body.

A move away from tower

In late 2014, government digital chief Mike Bracken signalled a move away from the “tower model”, whereby IT contracts are broken down into components and outsourced to several different specialist suppliers.

Instead, as many large-scale IT contracts wind down, the Government Digital Service (GDS) proposed moving the development of many IT projects in-house or agreeing shorter, smaller arrangements to avoid continually extending and replacing IT contracts.

“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,” Bracken said at the time.

“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.”

This stance was clarified in a recent GDS blog post by Alex Holmes, deputy director and chief of staff in the Office of the CTO at the Cabinet Office, who highlighted that developing in-house systems – rather than outsourcing to a service integration and management (Siam) supplier – ensures customers do not buy systems with incompatible components and can develop them with greater focus on the user.

“Organisations have adopted the tower model believing they are following government policy and using best practice, but they are doing neither,” said Holmes in his blog post.

“I am now writing this post to be clear that the tower model is not condoned and not in line with government policy. Government should use the best of what is already out there – not develop its own model.

Lack of clarity

But in response, TechUK said it was “disappointed” that an IT strategy change would be announced in a blog post rather than in an official capacity.

Read more about GDS

  • The question over whether Government Digital Service can scale locally was discussed at a Computer Weekly debate on government digital policies.
  • A local authority version of Whitehall’s GDS is a “very high priority”, according to Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.

It said the tower model had, in the past, been “advocated” by bodies in the public sector, leading to a number of firms investing in similar methodologies “to help them deliver against the government requirements”.

But Holmes insisted on Twitter the changes had not been announced in his blog post, and he had simply outlined the current policy.

TechUK stated that, in the future, clarity would be key in ensuring ongoing support from suppliers and to guide the industry in the right direction.

“Government must now engage with the whole of the industry, large and small, to help shape future transition and strategy and agree the best way to define and procure the solutions they need,” said Naureen Khan, TechUK associate director for central government and education.

Under the coalition government, IT buying policy has moved away from the old model of large-scale outsourcing, to an emphasis on using more in-house skills, smaller, shorter-term supplier contracts, and encouraging greater use of SMEs. 

While large systems integrators still dominate government IT spending – thanks to the revenue from existing long-term deals – their share of new IT purchasing has fallen.

Read more on IT for government and public sector