Government IT over the last five years – the good, the bad and the digital

As the general election approaches, Computer Weekly looks back at the highs and lows of the last five years in government IT

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When any IT project fails, the spotlight falls on the time and money wasted but, in the public sector, IT comes under scrutiny more often than most.

Over the last few years we have witnessed the outgoing government criticised for its outdated outsourcing contracts, and failures such as initial write-offs on the Universal Credit scheme.

But it has not been all bad, as the creation of the Government Digital Service (GDS) and its website project Gov.uk have seen a huge improvement in open data, digital services and a reduction of legacy outsourcing contracts.

Now the coalition government has wound down, and with the general election approaching on 7 May 2015, Computer Weekly looks back at some of the highs and lows of the last five years in government IT.

The Government Digital Service

Of everything the last administration worked on, the creation of the Government Digital Service (GDS) was labelled the most successful IT initiative of the last five years by industry experts. GDS was cited as being a success due to its rapid development nature and the ability to facilitate real change across Whitehall.

“The landscape has changed significantly under the Government Digital Service. GDS has had a significant impact, and what’s happened which has been good is the dynamic and disruptive leadership shown by GDS in tech and digital and IT,” said Adam Thilthorpe, director of professionalism at BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT.

“Some of the things they’ve done have had real impact on people’s lives and have made things better. Some of the things that they’ve done would actually be a great lesson to be listened to in the private sector.”

Among the examples cited by Thilthorpe were the improved ability to arrange power of attorney online through Gov.uk, and other services such as online prison bookings. However, GDS has been criticised for failing to deliver on all 25 of the high-volume digital transactions it targeted for completion before the general election. 

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The agile approach to digital transformation heralded by GDS has not been without its hurdles and, as Thilthorpe pointed out, where the public is involved, the consequences can be huge.

“There is a risk when adopting this kind of attitude that stuff will go out and it's not fit for purpose,” he said. “This has social impact, and consequences on people's lives.”

An example is the failure in March 2015 of the rural payments digital service, which had to be withdrawn shortly after launch, as many farmers could not use the system

The highest-profile IT problems came with Universal Credit - a project that was initially kept out of the GDS remit - leading to millions of pounds of IT work being wasted. Sorting out Universal Credit will be a priority for whichever political party wins the election.

Cutting down outsourcing

One of the government’s biggest IT challenges when it came into power in 2010 was the large number of legacy IT outsourcing contracts still costing huge sums of money, especially those where money was spent but the project did not come to fruition, such as the failed FireControl project, which is still costing taxpayers millions.  

Many of those big deals – including the biggest of the lot, HM Revenue & Customs' £800m per year Aspire contract – are yet to conclude, and migrating away from them remains an IT risk facing the next government

The risks of such large-scale outsourcing were amply illustrated when the Home Office recently paid £150m to Raytheon to settle a legal dispute over cancelling the supplier's e-Borders contract early in the coalition's time in power. 

Digital government has social impact, and consequences on people's lives

Adam Thilthorpe, BCS

But one of the biggest successes was the development of a new purchasing model to move away from the days of mega-outsourcing – the G-Cloud platform and digital marketplace, an online catalogue of cloud software and services, with transparent pricing and rapid procurement cycles. 

“What we’re really pleased to see with the digital services framework and with G-Cloud is the ongoing engagement with the industry,” said Naureen Khan, associate director for central government at IT trade body TechUK.

Khan pointed out that G-Cloud has so far seen over half a billion pounds of contracts signed, mainly with small and medium-sized businesses. This is not only reducing long-term contracts with huge organisations, but helps promote growth in the technology industry by supporting smaller businesses.

“We want to see more companies not just get on to G-Cloud but gaining more business from G-Cloud. And how do you do that? You encourage greater spend through G-Cloud and getting government buyers to buy through G-Cloud,” she said.

Khan also highlighted the recent appointment of GDS chief Mike Bracken as chief data officer for the government to promote open data, as a huge step in the right direction for the future.

“That’s really important having somebody at that level first of all, and for that role to be within GDS will have a great impact to drive through the open data changes over the next five years,” she said.

Digital government - the next government's priorities

Nurturing technology talent

Russ Shaw, founder of startup support group Tech London Advocates, said government IT projects are not what will lead to some of the biggest changes in the industry, but instead the initiatives to nurture the future of IT and the digital economy.

Implementing coding in the school curriculum last year, and putting in place the Exceptional Talent Visa scheme for overseas entrepreneurs, are just some of the IT-related decisions the government made to secure the sector’s future. During the last five years, Tech City grew from a small area of East London to become a UK-wide initiative supporting and promoting technology startups around the country.

“Getting coding into the curriculum I think is a real step in the right direction. It’s now being taught as part of the ICT curriculum and I hope that’s going to be the first of a number of steps that really recognises the critical importance of science, technology, engineering and maths,” Shaw said.

“In terms of talent and bringing in immigrants, things like the Exceptional Talent Visa and the Entrepreneur Visa have been good moves in the right direction of recognising that Britain and London is open for talent.”

Overall, most experts agree that the positives in Whitehall IT over the past five years outweigh the negatives. The future of the UK's digital economy and the role of technology are set to continue as key challenges for the next government. 

Read more on IT for government and public sector

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