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Ctpr - Centre for Technology Policy Research

By Rat Outzipape

And further comments here ctpr after this entry better governance of public sector IT

Adam Saltiel says: 04/03/2010 at 17:16

  1. I am very surprised to find that there are, apparently, no Universities such as LSE, who have a strong interest in economics and economic policy that already research into this complex, but exceedingly important, area. Is this in fact the case? Could you provide references to any other such research or interested institutions including the National School of Government? A cursory look shows that there is a National School of Government strategy research project.
  2. [1.] shows the ambiguity in your use of the .org domain. It seems to me that yours is a commercial site offering paid for analysis and other services. This subject is very important and it behoves any organisation encouraging debate to be scrupulous. Without open references to other similar resources, cross references to parallel work, openness about your contacts in the major political parties and an open discussion of your immediate future it is impossible for an external party such as myself to know how or whether to align with your intentions. I would appreciate detailed clarification of these points.

[1.] From The org domain was one of the original top-level domains [sic]. It was originally intended for non-profit organizations or organizations of a non-commercial character that did not meet the requirements for other gTLDs. … Example use In addition to its wide use in charitable fields, it is often preferred by the free software movement, as opposed to the com domains used mostly by for-profit companies. Many political parties and support groups also use org domains.

Adam Saltiel says: 04/03/2010 at 18:10

  1. Much of the editorial and many of the comments on this site and on ideal gov cover similar ground and echo one another. While I have my reservations about these sites I find myself in broad agreement with these comments. For instance, looking at the top of this page ' … lack of a strategic relationship between IT and the UK's public services and public policy, combined with the lack of clear ownership … '.
  2. It seems to me that paradoxes enter the vision of very large spend projects. A constrained project in the private sector has a well delineated beginning, middle and end. At end the supplier must find other work, elsewhere. And always in competition with other suppliers.
  3. If there is a big government spend, whether through one supplier vehicle or through many competitors the delineation is not as clear.
    3.1. If the spend is with multiple small(er) contractors and there is a domino of failures, the one client becomes responsible. And if there is a domino of badly interpreted requirements this maybe more difficult to unwind between multiple suppliers. Although each one would 'feel' responsible, i.e. do their best to be proactive as their company would be on the line.
    3.2. If the spend is through single supplier it is very difficult for anyone to 'feel' responsible, because, in some way, no one is. This is why performance related pay is so important. Unfortunately the motive to increase company profit can mitigate against the discipline of performance related pay, and others are, as noted, demotivated anyway.
    3.3. The issue is whether the overhead of going for smaller suppliers unsustainable? Note that many comments advocate a smaller Whitehall.
  4. I think that from the outside we grasp at easy visions, such as the Civil Service is bloated, or they are naive and so on. I doubt it is a simple as that at all. But I also suspect that there is ground to be made up in the contractual arrangements made between government and their suppliers, itself an area for legitimate research and innovation.
    4.1. The software supply market to the government sector is very young and, as yet, immature.
    4.2. As commented by myself and others elsewhere, government has skewed the market. It has also skewed its maturation.
    4.3. Government do need a strategic approach to the market in order to redirect it. Government need a vision of what the market should look like and, I presume, that vision should be based on some good theory and not a few figures.
    4.4. Without either the theory or figures to hand my guess is that government needs to encourage the development of a few different types of suppliers, as well as to handle more (much more?) with small business.
    4.5. In building construction someone invented the idea of the concrete mixer lorry. I expect that now there are a few major suppliers, but no real monopoly in the area. This has lead to innovation, site mixing towers, the ability to supplier different and new forms of mix with little lag between lab and market and so on.
    4.5.1. Software seems different. Here suppliers wax and wan. Must this be so? Unlike my construction example it seems that suppliers in software rarely stick to a narrow specialist part of the market. Possible as a product of the complexity of the field? Perhaps government should be encouraging this?
    4.6. As I have commented elsewhere, there seems no equivalent of the independent partnership e.g. of surveyors, but for software, this model should also be valuable in other specialisms. In other words, divide up the specialisms and size them accordingly. Maybe this could be applied to legal services as well, after all why not?

    jerry says: 05/03/2010 at 08:20

Thanks Adam

Actually the LSE does good work in this area along with others – see for example "Digital Era Governance" (Patrick Dunleavy et al), Oxford, 2008. They also run a series of free seminars and events looking at a whole variety of related issues.

CTPR does a lot of pro bono and voluntary work – and, where we can find sponsors/advertisers (such as for our newsletters) we make these available free of charge. Where we do charge for reports, we do so to repay our associates and third parties who put together the research and reports as we run a co-operative model. Hopefully over time the paid-for research work will enable us to produce a greater volume of "public good", free reports. However, we do want to remain non-partisan and independent – so any advertising or sponsorship is unacceptable if it comes with "strings attached".

Personally, I have contacts and discussions with all of the major parties and aim to provide a balanced view of their intentions and capabilities with regard to technology policy. Our newsletter aims over time to have interviews with key figures across the political spectrum – our two most recent have been with the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. We hope the next one will be with Labour, although we also need to be sensitive over timing and the upcoming general election.

Adam Saltiel says: 05/03/2010 at 19:18

Jerry, Thank you very much for your response. I have now read the Feb Newsletter. I am impressed. The first section 'Trust in our digital lives' is a vital discussion, necessary for CTPR to cover, but I am restricting myself to cost saving in software delivery. In this the second article, the interview with Chris Huhne and the third, Where next, are highly relevant.
I have no background in politics, management or economics.
I have not been reading up on this subject prior to my own thoughts.
It is, therefore, very striking that nearly everything that Chris Huhne says I agree with, especially with respect to the need for the Civil Service to be empowered and the comparison with its historical self.
I must conclude these are fairly accepted notions by this stage that flow naturally out of any serious thought about the subject.
My immediate background has been as an employee of one of the big suppliers into government, though not particularly big in IT per ce.
I left this role because I was ashamed of the wastage and exceedingly low standard of work I saw.
I felt that if there was wastage that at least the standard of work should be high, that the work should be innovative, which is, after all, risky.
This was not the case.
I will not go into further specifics, however, I came to think about the nature of the way money was spent in the contract and the relationship between my employer and HMRC.
I realised that what ever the failings on the part of my employer they were being witnessed by HMRC.
I came to the conclusion that this cannot be an isolated case of mismanagement leading to very poor use of resources but was probably indicative of the whole software supply area.
As I could see projects that were being charged out at £10,000,000.00 that I knew, in terms of features, should be costing no more than £500,000.00 I have further concluded that, in software delivery, savings can be made in the order of 90%.
So I am with Chris Huhne when he calls for a more hard headed approach from government.
One of the issues government has is that it pre-announces how much money is in the pot.
This weakens (to say the least!) it's ability to negotiate.
I don't know the answer to this, but it does seem an answer is still needed.
Referring back to HMRC, I do find it astonishing that they allow a large proportion of the work done to be on time and materials.
My knowledge of this is very limited.
Forty years ago, in construction, any contract on time and materials was considered a gold mine.
Also, forty years ago was about the time when contract management was introduced and the independent management team consider a project a failure if they didn't run at least one of their subcontractors into bankruptcy.
(Achieved by refusing payment on the pretext of some gaff.)
Should government behave like this?
I'm not sure that they shouldn't. They certainly cannot when they vet their suppliers on the basis of 'due diligence'.
I don't know the answer to these sorts of issues.
I do know that the present state of affairs isn't sustainable.
I shall move on now to your review of the Conservatives.

My heart sunk when I read

'Is there an Open Source solution, saving development and licensing costs, and reducing dependence on long-term oligopoly suppliers?'
as this betrays ignorance and the desire to use catch phrases.
On its own, it is clutching at straws.

But I then read

'Where any bespoke computer code is written for the government, unless it genuinely pertains to national security, why can't it be released under open source licences?'
This, actually, is a very revolutionary suggestion.
Part of my shame and despair in my previous employment was that the vast majority of the code base was open source, there are two strong points to be made about this.

  1. Absolutely no contribution was made or attempted back into those open source projects. Frankly, that is a bit like theft, in the context or the mores of open source. It shows a glib contempt for the intellectual endeavour of others upon whom they depend.

  2. The code management and, therefore, the relationship with ongoing open source projects, was non-existent. Little or no benefit accrued from using open source.

It is excellent that the Conservatives should, I have to say very belatedly for main stream politics, suggest the use of open source, but this is not a thing to grab at, it is something that needs planning and management.
The second part, contributing code back, suggests the potential of the virtuous cycle may be appreciated. Again, this potentially has structural implications.
Some economic/managerial planning is needed to assess impact.
The final point I would like to make is about human behaviour.
It should be understood about mass psychology, that is any large group, that the very lowest common denominator is found in the group psychology and then a lot of mental effort goes into reinforcing the default positions.
The Conservatives use the phrase 'long-term oligopoly suppliers' wanting to reduce dependence.
But this dependence has been reinforced by a series of beliefs about safety of supply, and a number of other factors.
If there is a very large Ministerial demand the belief is that only a large supplier can fulfil.
When the Centre for Technology Policy Research says that the way public services are delivered needs to be reformed I am not sure what is being suggested.
The issue is should policy be top down led and, if so, must the accompanying technology be top down led.
These are two separate issues.
Large Ministerial demands do not have to be made and large fulfilment, all in one go, orders do not have to be worked up.
I suggest it is the later that should be the subject of research.
This area strongly intersects not just with economics but also with organisational behaviour patterns.
An area in which I believe the Civil Service is far ahead of the private sector.