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Breaking free from 'crazy' IT

Source: Public Sector Executive May/June 12

Chris Chant, the former Cabinet Office programme director for G-Cloud, who led many government IT projects during his decades in the civil service, gave a candid take on the problems with IT at many departments, the vested interests of the big suppliers, and the serious lack of skills in this area internally following years of outsourcing.

In one of his last days before retirement, the well-liked and outspoken Chris Chant addressed the Socitm spring conference on a range of government IT issues, and didn’t hold back in his criticisms.

He cannot be accused of being demob-happy, as he has always been happy to say what he thinks, and has blogged openly about failures in government IT as he sees them.

But some of his comments at Socitm’s spring conference were still bracing, coming from a career civil servant: words like “nonsense”, “strange” and “crazy” tripped from his tongue, describing various decisions and strategies made by departments in recent years. He said that for some of the staff in central government, price and cost have been “almost immaterial” in negotiations, allowing the amount spent to spiral.

Chant, whose past roles have included being Director of London 2012 Integration and Assurance, Government Olympic Executive CIO, Defra CIO and programme director within the Cabinet Office on complex multi-agency IT services, including the Government Gateway, was scathing about the intimate relationship government has had with the big IT suppliers.

He said: “Around 80% of what’s done in Government is controlled by six companies; what Francis Maude described as an oligopoly. I think that’s probably right, in many cases – we’ve outsourced all sorts of things that we should never have done.

“We’re facing unacceptably high costs. Those contracts we’re in leave us completely inflexible in what we need to do, at a time when we need fast iteration of services, and a modern way of delivering IT to give us those services.

“We need to break out of those existing contracts.”

He said previous “crazy” rules meant departments couldn’t even discuss their contracts with each other, to discuss price and quality, but because of renegotiation during summer 2010, those rules had been relaxed, and that during 2010/11 government recovered nearly £1bn from large suppliers “in recognition of the difficult times we were in”.

He said departments had been getting “heavyweight” central support on managing their remaining time stuck in “awfully long”, inflexible contracts.

But he credited local government CIOs for getting things done “for about half the price” of similar things in central government.

He told the audience: “I’m sure in local government, you’ve been the recipients of some of the nonsense we’ve done centrally, and the way we manage our processes, and we can improve that.”

He said a vital part of changing things was giving public sector bodies easier access to cheaper commodity services, and the innovations that happen at SME level – and less often at the tier 1 level.

He said: “Most of the large SIs [systems integrators] move at the same lumbering pace as we do in central government.

“We need to create that competitive marketplace. One of the things we haven’t done is got a competitive marketplace. We may think we do an OJEU, and we may think that’s a competition, and indeed legally it is, but it’s a competition like saying ‘I’m going to have a competition for buying a car’, then saying it must be built in Germany. It’s not going to give you the best value for money to restrict yourself like that.

“We’re putting in new pre-procured frameworks, and G-Cloud is one of those.”

No matter which public sector organisation uses a given IT product, he said, 80%-plus of the security accreditation will be the same. “We want to get that done through crossgovernment accreditation that will allow people to see what’s already been done on a product, and what needs to be done, rather than starting all over again – but without changing security standards.”

He admitted: “Skills have been lost in central government over the years. Some organisations in central government have outsourced their IT strategy; I find [it] rather difficult to imagine how anybody came to that decision, but that’s what’s happened.

“The staff to do that work are just not there so those skills have got to be replenished.”

He called it a “strange thing” that some big IT services were much cheaper on G Cloud, on short contracts, than the exact same services on long contracts with departments – showing the beneficial effects of transparency and open competition.

He updated the conference on G-Cloud and the Cloudstore, and the large number of suppliers and services now available. But he added: “We’re not saying that cloud is right for everything; despite what people may like to say in the press, or tweet, that’s never been what we’ve said. What we’re saying is, we’re making these services available much more easily to people.”

Chant, who joined the civil service in 1976, is spending his retirement in the south of France.

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