Govt IT – A Recipe For Rip-Offs

Government and IT- “A Recipe For Rip-Offs”

Today, the Public Administration Select Committee published its findings from its Inquiry into Government IT.

The Inquiry was started in December 2010 so has the seven month wait been worthwhile?

Titled “A Recipe For Rip-Offs”(HTML) or (PDF) it’s certainly asking to be read. The OSC submitted three sets of evidence so we were keen to read it.

By way of preface, the report is an easy read which is a good indicator of the amount of effort that must have gone in to preparing it and congratulations are due for that.

We already knew that the report was going to published today (28 July) as at least one person told us two days ago. There will have been discussion with the subjects of the report. A simple analysis of the time line of the Inquiry shows a remarkable tendency for the Government and those we might consider to be in its team to publish material just before key Inquiry dates, or on one occasion handed to the Committee Chairman during an evidence session. With that in mind we were curious to see what else had been published in the last few days that might be relevant to this report.

Reading the summary, passing over the obvious such as its all a bit expensive and a bit late, three things leapt out:

  • Government IT is in the grip of a small number of suppliers, which will come as a surprise to anyone that didn’t know about the 2004 study (PDF) expressing caution about the concentration of IT suppliers to the UK Government and offering comparisons and suggestions for a better way forward.
  • There’s a skills shortage for the IT profession in the civil service and that’s despite the “professional skills for government” programme last updated in Jun 2010 but as it says PSG has been developed collaboratively since 2003 by employers, staff, professions and wider stakeholders in central government.
  • The Committee sees merit in the reform of public services online through a combination of data release, giving individuals control of their own personal records, engaging users in the design and continuous improvement of services and opening up the delivery of online services to a greater range of organisations

Regarding skills, while we might have been wondering what had been happening since 2003, conveniently, on 26 July (see above) we discover that’s it’s all a bit difficult.

Public sector managers are concerned about their inability to retain qualified IT professionals, with better pay and other perks available in the private sector, can reveal

Of course if the skills shortage were linked to opening up the delivery of online services to a greater range of organisations, the problem could be eased as the need would decline. Allowing other providers was at least as early as 2003 together with models of how to make it work.

We discussed that here and here.

Open Standards

On Open Standards the Committee highlights their importance if the Government is to make data more readily accessible. It will also help the Government avoid lock-in to any one provider.

We welcome attempts to identify the open standards to be used across departments. However, we are concerned that the recent Government survey indicates that the current understanding of open standards is incomplete.

Here the Committee specifically referenced our concerns.

Open Source Software

Not much is said about open source software (OSS is predicated on open standards) except the report mentions the Cabinet Office ICT Strategy promise to “level the playing field”.

During the enquiry one set of evidence (PDF, p7) stated:

In February 2011 Cabinet Office announced the creation of an Open Source Advisory Panel – a group of industry professionals who will provide ad hoc advice and support to procurement and technical officials on Open Source. The panel will also be available to offer technical advise around open source solutions to System Integrators.

A second set of evidence expanded the original statement:

The Open Source Advisory Panel has been established by the UK Public Sector Group (PSG). The panel is currently resourced by five independent expert practitioners, nominated by Open Forum Europe, and approved by PSG. The expert practitioners have all either implemented or procured open source solutions or have detailed expertise in a specific area (e.g. legal), and who in turn are able to provide access to community specialist expertise, supplier/government contacts networks, and open source users from across Europe.

We made an FOI request about the group’s terms of reference and work programme and eventually received a reply suggesting that matters were at a much earlier stage (excerpts):

The terms of reference of the OSAP are in the process of being drafted and will be available on the Open Forum Europe Website [and] are therefore considered to be exempt under section 22(1) of the FOI Act

No OSAP work plan has been agreed for the next year

No meetings of the OSAP have taken place. Discussions concerning OSAP have teken place at the OFE Public Sector Group. Minutes of these are available online at Open Forum Europe website

We looked for for the minutes but couldn’t find them and the Terms of Reference do not appear to have been updates since February 2010.

All in all we agree with the Report conclusion:

Numerous challenges remain[…] Without the ability to engage with IT suppliers as an intelligent customer – able to secure the most efficient deal and benchmark its costs – and to understand the role technology can play in the delivery of public services, Government is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.