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Government It Solutions

By Rat Outzipape

I think I have written enough to begin to come up with some viable solutions in this area.
As s pre-amble I should say it seems that this topic generates very little traffic and there actually is no central place that holds the public's and politicians attention where the issues are aired.
That is not the Cabinet Office Blog another way, a truly insulting and pitiful effort, not the (ctpr blog) [http://ctpr.org/] and associated, certainly not the Conservatives, where the recent story sunk like a lead balloon.
This is disappointing, although not surprising.
When one reads the comments of politicians there is always a feeling that they are a bit detached from the issues they describe.
Frances Maude is repeating more or less what he has been told to say. But how do the Conservatives' propositions add up?
open source software and a skunk works, but neither of these things on their own actually says very much.
As I point out in adjacent comments, open source can, and often is, abused by IT contractors. Abused in that they return nothing to the projects they depend on and abused in that they do not keep abreast of this and competing technologies such that no real benefit is derived.
A skunk works, as described doesn't necessarily sound all that hopeful either. Are they there to knock out, well, to knock out what? Cheap and cheerful solutions, exemplar proofs of concept, small scale focused demonstrators? And it seems that the team will be hopelessly small if anything substantial is to be tackled. So where does this leave the advice that government must seek? The skunk works looks like a red herring to me in terms of tackling the real issues.
As I have said the real issues are those of cultural change and business, mainly legal, context.
Unless contracts can be refashioned nothing will happen.
Unless the collusion between government and their contractors ends, nothing will change.
I have just contacted the Conservative party with this message:-

I have specific details of an HMRC led IT project where the contractor seems to deliberately provides excessively expensive and sub standard functionality in the service. I would like the opportunity to gather my thoughts on paper about this in the knowledge that it will be considered and lessons shall be learned. To catch your attention my broader surmise is that savings down to from one tenth to one twentieth of current costs could be made in many areas, amounting to many billions of pounds every year. Can you provide me with a contact in this matter? Please note I have read your proposals on technology, I am offering far more detailed and actual practice based analysis than the high level offerings I have read so far.

It is awfully difficult to get any attention for this sort of thing. Perhaps I just sound like a nutter?
Of course, I have a sales pitch 'from one tenth to one twentieth of current costs'.

What do I really think is possible and how would it be brought about? [ctpr blog] (http://ctpr.org/) in the guise of idealgov and associated wiki have many suggestions, one central one is that an inner team of no more than 15 head count become responsible for IT.
With Governance I will concentrate on a few points. With further time I will work my way through the whole document.
This is a quote of their own, all these issues have been thought about and written about by various organisations in some detail.

CIO sets out the top 10 habits of successful CIOs as being to:

  • I. Focus relentlessly on their organisation's strategy and how IT can enable key objectives
  • II. Provide leadership that motivates the IT team to deliver exceptional performance
  • III. Manage change so that it seems welcoming rather than threatening
  • IV. Spot talent, hire it, then develop it further so it becomes even better
  • V. Communicate ideas to the business in ways that are credible and convincing
  • VI. Understand how building effective teams provides a platform for successful projects
  • VII. Build effective relationships with internal and external stakeholders
  • VIII. Manage expectations about what IT can and cannot achieve
  • IX. Identify and harness the enabling power of new technologies to give their organisation extra competitive edge
  • X. Acquire industry knowledge so they can contribute to senior management decision-making

The whole of the IdealGovernmentITStrategy as far I have got reading through, seems to want to offer a vision underpinned by a series of recommendations and guide lines. But it doesn't, cannot, offer an analysis of what is wrong at the moment and what actual pragmatic steps need to be made to rectify the situation, starting from here.
There are sections on the need for review, the need for independent advisers and so on, and all of this pertains to these issues. There are certainly also, in this section, detailed mentions of responsibility assignment.
However, I am still left with the feeling that the whole proposal, were it to be adopted and I think the Conservatives probably are paying it some attention through some means (person contact?), lacks bite. It is not substantive.
I can only hint at what would be a path to a more substantive solution, possible details are too great, and the fields of knowledge mainly outside of my own.
This brings me to my first point.
The company for which I worked, Serco PLC have one research arm and their research is in, very sensibly, the legal aspects of government wide tendering. From this the device novel contractual forms, based, e.g. on research into PFI, to the government customer.
Two points. 1. It must be immediately apparent how attractive this can be to the customer, since promised and wrapped saving seem guaranteed on a very large scale. Only a very large company is in the position to make this sort of service offering. 2. The government is no match for this concentration of technical legal knowledge. Government needs to strengthened in non IT technical matters. I do not see this in the IdealGovernment ITStrategy.
What I do see, and this alarms me, is a call for 'independent' advisers from the industry.
The problem here such people are not independent, they are usually tainted by the way in which they have acquired their knowledge. To put it another way, the mind set into which they have been trained by their experience prevents them from being effective in the role in which they are being invited to perform.
CIOs and the like, especially those with experience in the public sector, are the last people to whom a radical program should be entrusted.
This brings up the very real problem of who then should it be? It seems to me that there are not the right people at the moment.
If we look at what is wrong with the current available people we will be able to see what may be done about finding more appropriate people. I will look at the points from CIO above in order to do this.

  • I. Focus relentlessly on their organisation's strategy and how IT can enable key objectives

My direct experience of this is that top managers and CIO's do this.
Question - what type of organisation? If we are talking about a PLC the foremost and single most clear objective is share holder value.
Share holder value translates into value for pension funds, so, really, mainly, value for retirement funds for working people with longevity of service.
What I am pointing out, very simplistically, is that there is a accrual of wealth for the pension fund at the immediate expense of the general tax payer. Private sector top managers who work with the public sector will identify with the organisational motives of their employer and those motives are in conflict with those of the public sector. There are few who will be able to then work in the public sector and realign their mindset, because it would entail admitting the original conflict.
As the public sector colludes with its own suppliers - this is a topic in its own right dealt with elsewhere - ignoring the basic inherent conflict, most managers who cross over will have little motivation to acknowledge it, nor, in consequence to the collusion, will they find the means by which they can make that acknowledgement concrete.
Now, what I anticipate from both sides at this point, faced with evidence of the massive mismanagement of IT, there will be an avalanche of self justification and rationalisation.
I very much fear that (ctpr blog) [http://ctpr.org/] and IdealGovernmentITStrategy, not to mention the BCS and CIO sets fit all too well into that mould.

There is a mountain of evidence that suggests this.

  1. The very long history of failures and lack of comment and action about this in public sector IT provision.
  2. The butter and parsnips taste of documents such as IdealGovernmentITStrategy, noticing that there is a fee seeking company behind it run by CIO types.
  3. The complete lack of science in the recommendations that are being circulated at the moment. To be serious for a moment, I think that there are several billion that could be saved every year in IT, but even if the figure is only, say, one billion, surely that saving is worth a lot to pursue? What, in fact, we have, is a situation where, as far as I know, almost no money is being spent on pursuing these savings, that is researching organisational structure, process change, economic ramifications and legal implications necessary to bring about these savings.
    There should be a dedicated group led by top lawyers and economists, whom I think may have a chance of being neutral, researching all these measures.
    Beyond that it is entirely naive to think that the interests of the client are reflected in the behaviour of service providers, as I will show.

II. Provide leadership that motivates the IT team to deliver exceptional performance

Serco PLC fail on this point and from here on I shall just mark this list pass or fail.
The primary motive of managers is in making profit in the profit centre for which they are responsible. I do not think that Serco PLC can be different to any other supplier in this regard. This can lead to extraordinary distortions. Exceptional becomes redefined immediately as that which is in the short term interests of the company and this will often mean towing the line for the project in hand no matter what opportunity there is for improvement. By definition, this must mean performance is less than exceptional by any common definition.

  • III. Manage change so that it seems welcoming rather than threatening

Fail. This company has been terrified of change and has not welcomed it in any form.
The ideal in the stricture parts company from the reality of daily life. Improvement and change, just doing the job right to specification and following the KPIs is seen as an organisational threat. The vested interests in continuing to do thing as is are so deeply entrenched, the sense that this is where the money stream is so embedded in the relationship between HMRC and Serco, that there is no prospect of change at all. HMRC have no plans to change how delivery is made, Serco have no plans to alter mode of delivery, and it is easy to see why.
Along with the issues of collusion, there is the issue of how money is made and that is on the basis of a very poorly thought out melding of the need to spend a set amount on the part of the customer and the need to show high costs (whether spread thinly or thickly across a cost base) on top of which profit is made. In other words the motivation built into this arrangement is to spend high, not to spend wisely. This is the most incredible disgrace, however I am sure it is common practice in government IT contracts.

  • IV. Spot talent, hire it, then develop it further so it becomes even better
    Fail. Obviously there is no motivation to chose talent as there is not outlet for that talent. I see no reason to believe this is not also common across the sector.

  • V. Communicate ideas to the business in ways that are credible and convincing
    Pass. But we already know that the business is not aligned in the least with its customer. What actually happens is that sub-project are proposed that disguise the short comings of projects that have gone before them, further degrading the system, often with devastating consequences.
    Is this common?
    Huge cost overruns indicate to me that it must be.

  • VI. Understand how building effective teams provides a platform for successful projects
    Pass, but see above.

  • VII. Build effective relationships with internal and external stakeholders
    Fail. Serco singularly failed in three major areas to build such relationships, each one has been pivotal to the project.

  • Failed in building effective relationships with other government departments and their suppliers in such a way so as to facilitate data sharing transactions between different sites. This negates the purpose of the Varney report (and has other very far reaching consequences) on which the whole exercise is predicated.

  • Failed to build an effective relationship with their third party IT supplier, BT, which has proven extremely damaging for the project as the IT core engine suffers an expensive and irreversible decline in reliability, performance and, above all, ability to adjust to changing needs.

  • Mismanage their own internal resources to the point of not knowing, by very many hundreds of thousands of pounds, the true state of their profitability. Thus expensively and misleadingly invite their customer to pay for change processes that couldn't be delivered on and were, in fact, nothing other than paper exercises that actually benefited their third party supplier rather than themselves or their customer.
    Since many other IT suppliers are on the other side of these reciprocal failures it is a fair conclusion that the failure is theirs, too, and that in conducting their business in this way they cause multiple failures of like nature with other parties.

  • VIII. Manage expectations about what IT can and cannot achieve
    Fail. CIOs had no idea what could be achieved with IT, it was, therefore, impossible to manage such expectations on the part of non IT managers. Moreover, as the technical team had little or no control over technical delivery they had very little credibility in their attempts to manage expectations, which looked more like papering cracks than anything else.

  • IX. Identify and harness the enabling power of new technologies to give their organisation extra competitive edge
    Fail. Absolutely not. See above. Most technology bought in - the bulk of the new technology on offer - came with its own unforeseen problems greater than the problems original set to be solved.

  • X. Acquire industry knowledge so they can contribute to senior management decision-making
    Fail. They seemed uninterested in industry developments in many key areas of which I am aware. One must understand that anything that costs money and seems unpredictable by virtue of being unknown is absolutely shunned. This can be understood in the light of my comments above.
    I could go on, but the point is made.
    Far from these strictures the reality is found wanting in a way that makes it difficult to imagine these points could ever be followed in the real.


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