“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end.” But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Apologies to Churchill, but his famous 1942 quote after the Allied victory at El Alamein just has to be borrowed to summarise the transformation that public sector IT had undergone over the past five years.
Ten years ago, HM Government couldn’t buy a decent headline about any of its ICT projects. Instead, there was just a litany of embarrassing failures hauled before the National Audit Office and roundly condemned for their waste, delay and ineptitude. A decade later, and a new spirit of optimism pervades the sector. The Government has successfully broken with the oligopoly of the very largest ICT providers to usher in a new era boasting an ‘all the talents’ supply chain of around 300 companies, many of those SMEs who have been encouraged in by a radical overhaul of procurement frameworks. And while the austerity programme could have been offered up as a valid excuse not to invest in IT, the opposite has in fact happened. The public sector is not just looking to make substantial savings through greater use of, say, Cloud or shared services, but is actively innovating for the benefit of the UK citizen. For example, everyone of us has probably been touched by the DVLA/Passport Office’s collaboration over user authentication, realising the long-desired ‘tell me once’ approach to online public services that makes consumer interaction just that much quicker and easier.
But, for all that has been achieved, we are still very much at the ‘end of the beginning’ of this transitional era in public sector ICT delivery. As a new white paper from Redcentric explains, both Government and suppliers face a number of challenges that need an effective response if the momentum is not going to be lost from such a welcome sea-change. Public bodies still need to try harder when it comes to embracing change and their willingness to share. They also need to accept that a ‘Government platform’ of services demands common technologies, which they need to make work with their existing arrangements. On the supplier side, there needs to be a much clearer delineation of service offering, greater transparency and a willingness for big and small, enterprise and specialist, to enter into multi-partner supply arrangements where a consortia approach is required. But the pivotal need is simpler procurement. You may have vision, determination and goodwill on both sides but it is always going to be a longer, harder road if there are barriers flung across the route. If government buyers don’t understand their own operating and assurance needs, then it is a big ask for suppliers to determine the optimum response. Such a disconnect has the potential to derail progress, hence the common call for more highly skilled and commercially astute public sector procurement teams.
Change always brings a degree of challenge with it, and we have to wait and see how both sides of the public sector ICT equation respond. It’s unlikely that progress will be uniform, but the most important thing is that progress, at whatever rate, is maintained. One thing that characterises this period of government technology is a seemingly endless cast of frameworks, structures, entities, platforms and specifications. You could call it evolution (such as the Government Digital Service’s absorption-cum-improvement of G-Cloud) but the pace and frequency of change risks obfuscation and confusion where what we need is clarity and understanding. For many years, the public sector, and ultimately the British taxpayer, paid the price for large-scale IT projects that lost their focus and drowned under the weight of expectations. Let’s hope, as we now move to the beginning of the end, that everyone can see and think clearly enough to last the course.
By Mark Hall (Public Sector Director) 17/7/15