Government digital transformation: a marathon, not a Sprint

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan February 2, 2014
200 days into a 400 day challenge to transform government service delivery and successes are celebrated at Sprint14. But Forrester Research isn't so sure about some of the changes.

Last week’s Sprint14 conference at London’s Film Museum on the South Bank was a gathering of the good and the great in UK government IT and digital circles.

Everyone was there from outgoing Digital Champion Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho through government COO Stephen Kelly and CTO Liam Maxwell to Mike Bracken, head of the Government Digital Service (GDS).

The event was designed to mark the half way point of the 400 working days set down a year ago as a challenge to launch 25 online services that will help to transform government service delivery in the UK.

To mark progress to date, various government ministers were sent out in front of the audience with no visible means of support (or at times, internet connection) to demonstrate five new services in the areas of PAYE tax, prison visits, electoral registration, driving records and visa applications.

The idea is - as the oft-repeated joke went - that these should all be simple enough for even a government minister to use.

(Not entirely sure that’s necessarily the best messaging to get the general public engaged to be honest. Nor was the ‘I’m nervous’ meme that was repeated once or twice too often when doing the demos. OK, the flakey connectivity justified your nerves, but the point is rather that we need to encourage trust in online services, no?)

But dodgy wi-fi aside, the five services on show lived up to their exemplar status and were good indicators that progress is indeed being made.

Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho

That, of course, was the point that Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude was most keen to emphasise in his keynote address - amid some horrendous punning about the Film Museum location:

“Close Encounters of the Digital Kind”…or “Honey I Shrunk the Costs.”




Let’s move on. Maude previewed the five online exemplars that were to be showcased:

“These are bread-and-butter transactions that people want to be quick and hassle free, at a time of their convenience, not when it’s convenient for the government.

“If we get it right - and we are, as you will see in a few minutes - we will make life better for citizens and businesses. And we will change the way people think about how government works.”

He reiterated some of the stats that he argues makes the case for digital transformation:

  • Digitalising public services could save citizens, the Exchequer and businesses £1.2 billion over the course of this parliament, rising to an estimated £1.7 billion each year after 2015.
  • The cost of digital transactions is 20 times lower than over the phone, 30 times lower than by post and 50 times lower than face-to-face.

Splat the rat!

Unarguable then? Perhaps, but Maude admitted that sometimes it’s an uphill struggle just to get the necessary culture change across government.

For example, there are now 15 more websites across government than there were three months ago despite a push to close as many as possible!

Maude complained:

“Closing government websites sometimes feels like a nightmarish game of splat-the-rat. As soon as you knock one website on the head, another pops out somewhere else.

“The number keeps going on up as fast and we close them!

“There’s absolutely no reason for every single bit of government to have its own unique web presence. So we’re going to press on!”


Maude moved on to discuss procurement practice, talking about the ‘red lines’ that have now been placed around purchasing of IT and services across government.

More film puns ahead:

“We were promised “It’s a Wonderful Life”, charged a “Fist Full of Dollars” – and then a “Few Dollars More” - but we were left with “Titanic”.

Er, yes minister.

But leaving the tortured analogies to their fate, Maude made the case:

“Previously, the UK government spent more on IT than any other country in Europe except Switzerland, although I think that included the cost of CERN. They were looking for the God Particle – but over here, we were left with an ungodly mess.

“For too long, big IT and big failures have stalked government. Now we want to see a new world, a start-up world, where what you can do matters most and where value includes both cost and quality.”

More SME engagement is needed, he went on, citing the example of a recent hosting contract where the incumbent big supplier bid £4 million only to be beaten by a UK-based small business which undercut it by 98.5% to do the job for £60,000.

Red alert over red lines

When you put it like that, the ‘red lines’ seem eminently sensible. To remind you, they are:

  • no IT contracts to exceed £100 million without a powerful reason
  • hosting contracts will not last for more than 2 years on the assumption that the cost of hosting halves every 18 months
  • no automatic contract extensions without a compelling case
  • companies with a contract for service provision will not be allowed to provide system integration in the same part of government.

These are tough rules and while many would argue they’ve been a long time coming, others aren’t so sure.

Clearly you’d expect grumbling from the installed ‘oligopoly’ supplier community - I’ve frequently cited our new diginomica editor Derek du Preez’s excellent interview with the incoming MD of services giant CGI as a case in point.

GDS' Mike Bracken

But I was intrigued to see Forrester Research’s Duncan Jones description of the new rules and reforms as “fundamentally flawed”.

Jones argues that transformation needs to focus on improving outcomes, not just on opening up the competitive landscape.

Jones makes the case that short term contracts, indiscriminate competition and avoiding sole source category strategies will deliver neither the best price nor the best technology.

His reasoning is as follows:

  • Too much competition deters the best suppliers from bidding.

“There is a serious danger that only the desperate will enter a race with possibly dozens of other runners, with the winner being the one who has most badly underestimated what it will take to complete the project. The best providers can get enough business from good customers so they don’t need to bet on long shots.”

  • The supplier’s main incentive to do a good job is removed. 

“Why should a supplier go an extra yard, let alone mile, if they are out of the door within two years and then treated just the same as all the other bidders when the contract is rebid? Why would you invest in training or innovation with such a short horizon?”

  • Competition pushes prices up, not down on the basis that selling is the main cost for software companies which is why they can give discounts of up to 90% for big deals. 

“Software is about scale, so bigger is usually better. The Technoligarchs's dominance comes from their products' excellence, not by some form of cheating. You can't avoid them, so you should learn to live with them.”

  • People are more expensive than software - and people get used to products such as Microsoft Office.

Estimating that the £200 million spent on Microsoft Office over the past 3 years by the UK government equates to around £40 per person, Jones argues:

“You might be able to save that £40 by switching to Open Office, but each person only has to waste a couple of hours each month struggling with a weaker product or trying to fix what his colleague has done to his formatting and macros, and you’ve wasted 10X what you have saved.”

He makes the final point:

“Politicians should empower their public sector procurement teams to use industry best practices for technology sourcing and stop forcing them to use open tender approaches when they aren’t appropriate for the category or project being sourced. They should also focus their transformation initiatives on delivering better project outcomes, and obsess less on minimizing costs.”


I find it hard to support Jones argument to a great degree I’m afraid, especially the ‘bigger is better’ idea.

You’ve only got to look at debacles such as the NHS National Programme for IT or the ongoing Universal Credit development to understand why there is the ‘obsession’ around minimizing costs and the role played by ‘bigger, but not better in this case’ providers.

On the other hand, I have a great deal of sympathy with the notion of empowering public sector procurement teams to use their own initiative when it comes to best practice - up to a point!

The problem - as has been demonstrated time and again - is that the necessary skills base in procurement and deployment across central government has been outsourced to the ‘bigger is better’ systems integrators.

That’s one of the main reasons we have public sector IT disasters on the scale we’ve seen: no-one knows how to fly the damn things!

So poor governance joins lousy programme management and the next thing you know we have another enormous bill and some platitudes about ‘lessons will be learned’.

So, yes - let’s give them more autonomy, but only once we’ve managed to get them all back in-house and skilled up to deliver the necessary digital transformation.

Reference was made at Sprint14 to every major government department having its own GDS. What a fantastic objective! Once that’s achieved, the potential for genuine change will be greatly increased.

But we’re not there yet. The message from Sprint14 was upbeat and positive and a half-day of celebration of progress made was entirely appropriate.

That said, there’s still a hell of a long way to go if the second 200 days are to deliver what is hoped of them. What’s encouraging to me is that the people at the top of the totem pole - from Maude down- understand this.

That, in my opinion, is what makes the push for genuine reform different this time around.