Debate surrounding the idea of 'government-as-a-platform' heavily dominated discussions this week at the London launch of a new alliance for some of the world's leading digital nations – the D5.
The D5 brings together the UK, South Korea, Estonia, New Zealand and Israel as part of a network that aims to share and collaborate on pain-points and success stories, so that each country can help the other to successfully progress to becoming fully digitally enabled. Each has their own strengths, but all the countries involved have a strong track record for digital excellence and aim to help progress each other further.
British Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, was speaking at the event, where he highlighted that one of the biggest challenges for the UK was moving to government-as-a-platform as some of central government's longest running and most expensive IT outsourcing contracts come to an end over the next 12 to 18 months. He said:
D5 was very much the brainchild of Liam Maxwell [the government's CTO], but has grown from a lot of conversations that we have had over the years with the countries that are represented - we found that we were talking about the same things in the same kind of way. It's all difficult, it's all challenging stuff, because it's challenging the existing ways of doing things.
We learn from each other, we get support from each other, we find out who has tried different things. For example, the UK government, we are seeing a lot of our big IT contracts coming to an end over the next few years, and we are trialling ways of replacing those.
We are towards the end of a tech transformation programme that is going to cut costs dramatically. It's not totally there, it never will totally be there, the digital world is always a work in progress. It is never a finished product. But this is not a talking shop – the point about the D5 is that it is a doing shop.
This government has taken a hard line with how IT has been delivered in the past in Whitehall and we at diginomica have extensively covered some of the initiatives that have been introduced to bring down costs, introduce SMEs into the supply chain and ultimately create new digital products for citizens to interact with.
However, as Stuart Lauchlan's piece highlighted yesterday, an investigation by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee found that the government may not be fully committed to its promise of turning its back on the old ways of delivering IT and warned that things have been left to drift off course.
Chair of the Committee Margaret Hodge said:
Departments have taken their eye off the ball and placed too much trust in contractors and relied too much on the information contractors supply. Contracts need to be managed at a sufficiently senior level, with strong accountability in place, by people with the right commercial expertise.
Government must guard against quasi-monopoly suppliers becoming too important to fail, and encourage competition through, for example, splitting up contracts to encourage small and medium sized enterprises to bid for work.
Government’s current approach to contracting gives too much advantage to contractors.
However, both Maude and government CTO Liam Maxwell were adamant at the D5 launch event that breaking up the old outsourcing agreements is still very much the plan and that a shift towards government-as-a-platform is on the agenda. Maude said:
We expect to see a lot of savings, we think the total addressable spend is something like £9 billion a year [from the outsourcing agreements]. In a lot of these areas we are seeing savings of 50% and an improvement, a better service. Our approach is government-as-a-platform, we should not have different bits of government basically reinventing the same tool. We should build it once for the whole of government and have it being used by lots of different parts of government to improve it.
Liam Maxwell reiterated the point and said:
We are not going out and buying the same thing for 10% off and the economies that we are going to get from government-as-a-platform approach are going to be very obvious to achieve, but difficult to quantify. One of the very strong lessons that we learned from Estonia was just doing it once. There is a lot of work going on at the moment around preparing ourselves [for the end of the outsourcing agreements. That's the focus at the moment.
For those of you unaware – this idea of government-as-a-platform is a fairly recent one. For whatever reason, it wasn't part of the main rhetoric and messaging coming out of the Cabinet Office until a few months ago. However, the idea that government should find common services used across the board, create them once using open source tools and then share them for reuse, now appears to be the top priority.
Yes, we did see some of this in the early days with GOV.UK, the UK government's central website and publishing platform. But only when the government announced its plans for Verify – a new central system that enables citizens to prove who they are when accessing online public services – that we began to see the idea of a 'platform' progressing.
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Labour, the opposition party, too like this idea of government-as-a-platform and in a recent digital review pushed the idea of a common platform that allows government to develop services upon for reuse. It also wants to see responsibility for developing these services devolved to areas outside of Whitehall and for new digital services to be built separate from legacy.
However, I am really struggling to get to grips with what the strategy is for this all-encompassing 'government-as-a-platform'. I get that it was done with GOV.UK and I get that it is being done with Verify – those are two very real and tangible examples. But they are just two examples. To move to becoming a 'platform', that involves a hell of a lot more stuff.
So what's the plan? What's the strategy? What's the pipeline? What projects are coming up that are going to be developed using open source and made available for re-use? Who is going to be responsible for building them? Will it be the Government Digital Service? Will it be departments?
I just don't know. It's all well and good throwing around words like 'open source', 'APIs', 'flexible' etc etc. We get it. It's a great idea. But what's happening and how?
Well, we got a bit more detail at the D5 event this week. One of the points that Francis Maude made was that skills are no longer going to be outsourced. He said:
One of the features will be that we will do more in-house. One of our absolutely clear experiences is that we outsourced too much in too big a bundle with contracts that were too long. We lost too much of the ability to be an intelligent customer and to do any integration ourselves. And that we are rebuilding.
Are we there with digital skills? No, but we are getting there. What there is in GDS is a recruitment hub, so we are recruiting for the whole of government. We are building into departments the skills that are needed. Some of this is bringing in people from outside, but not all of it actually. We need to be building and developing internally, as well as from the outside. That's the combination that works the most powerfully.
Maude also hinted that he isn't keen on Labour's idea of devolving control of digital development to areas outside of Whitehall. He wants to keep it centralised. He said:
The starting point will be that there will continue to be central controls, which we put in place within days of the coalition government being formed and gave us the ability to stop different parts of central government doing the wrong thing.
What we lacked at that stage was the ability to work with them to help them do the right thing. We've now got that in abundance. We can stop the wrong thing happening and then use that leverage to encourage the right thing to happen. We are finding that departments are completely getting this.
Liam Maxwell also wanted to highlight that the government is working on these common tools, but it isn't in the form of a big project and so it isn't the
easiest thing to communicate to us journalists. But he does insist it is happening. He said:
There are components that we have that are common and it would be sensible to make those in a common way. One of the things that we learnt from Estonia was, let's not go and build another case management system, let's go and have something that is a common process across government. Things we can share, like transaction monitoring, things like case management. We are looking at them and working on them, which are going to be the most practical things to do.
We started off by doing things for you, but now we are working with you. That's the stage we are at now. We are working with departments consistently across government so that we get there. I know sometimes it's very easy to think we should be doing some 'big thing' now, but we are not, we are just getting on and doing it. I know that's very frustrating for your trade, to try and spot where it's going on, but we try and communicate that with you.
I don't want it to come across that I'm against the idea of government-as-a-platform – because I'm not. I'm actually very much for the idea and I think Maude and Maxwell showed real passion and commitment this week to the agenda. I also think the D5 network is a great idea – sharing and collaborating always makes sense, right?
However, I do think there is a lack of clarity around the strategy for this new government platform. It would be great to get an idea of what these common services are – as was done with publishing and identity – and how they are going to be targeted. For instance, will HMRC help with developing a transactions system? MoD with security? Or will GDS maintain control, develop all the systems and then push them out for re-use?
With the outsourcing agreements coming to an end over the next 18 months, we need a clearer idea of how we are going to tackle this. You very much get the impression from the Cabinet Office that they are still trying to figure it out – let's hope Estonia has got some ideas!
A general election in May next year also isn't helping, I presume. You get the impression that no announcements or new strategies are being put out just yet, given that Labour could be swooping in in 6 months to mix things up. Let's hope that this doesn't delay things too much.