Is G-Cloud really on amber alert?

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan May 27, 2013
Summary:
A new Major Projects Authority report has flagged up G-Cloud as having Amber/Red status - potential for trouble ahead in other words. Does some rethinking need to be done?


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Last week the UK government published The Major Projects Authority annual report, detailing the progress of 191 major projects worth a total of £353.7 billion, including the G-Cloud programme.

The Government launched the Major Projects Authority (MPA), within the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Group (ERG) back in March 2011. It operates as a partnership between the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury, reporting jointly to Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. It also boasts a strong Prime Ministerial mandate.

The MPA was set up out of frustration that there was little or no data available on the progress of and prognoses for major programmes across government.

Maude explains in the introduction to the report:

We know that billions of pounds were squandered in the past. Major projects were one area where countless millions were poured away. At the time of the General Election it seems that just one in three of these important projects were delivered on time or on budget. That was nothing less than an unacceptable record.

In the past, mistakes have been concealed in layers of bureaucracy, only surfacing when billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money had already been wasted. Some project leaders were running multiple projects of huge complexity. Skills in project management were lacking. There wasn’t even central oversight of all of Government’s projects.

What the MPA report aims to provide is an assessment of which programmes are working, which need some TLC and of course which are dead men walking.

The report operates a 'traffic lights' system of rankings to assess the various programmes:

Green means: 

Successful delivery of the project to time, cost and quality appears highly likely and there are no major outstanding issues that at this stage appear to threaten delivery significantly.

Amber means: 

Successful delivery appears feasible but significant issues already exist, requiring management attention. These appear resolvable at this stage and, if addressed promptly, should not present a cost/schedule overrun. 

Red means: 

Successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable. There are major issues on project definition, schedule, budget, quality and/or benefits delivery, which at this stage do not appear to be manageable or resolvable. The project may need re-scoping and/or its overall viability reassessed.

Only eight projects currently underway across the UK government sector are flagged up as Red and most of these are fairly predictable.

For example, a hugely ambitious £127.1 million shared services programme at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) was due to be completed last year. It isn't - and according to the report won't be much before the end of 2014 at the earliest. File under Red.

G-Cloud questioned?

But the one that catches the eye is the Amber/Red tagging of the G-Cloud programme. Amber/Red is defined as:

Successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to ensure these are addressed, and whether resolution is feasible.

Whoa there, steady up for a moment.

This is the G-Cloud we're talking about!  A major success story according to Maude in all previous statements on the subject.

Not this time around though. This time there are some concerns it seems.

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Read also:

Has G-Cloud really been a success?

Digital Decision Maker: Denise McDonagh

Government Cloud needs a big stick

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On the plus side, the MPA report notes:

The Programme has delivered a viable CloudStore supported by an ambitious procurement framework. It has marketed this across a wide range of ICT vendors and the public sector.

The concept has clearly generated an enthusiastic response from suppliers, particularly SMEs, that have not previously had access to government.

In the last couple of months G-Cloud has started to see exponential growth in sales and anecdotal evidence suggests that it has driven considerable levels of savings through transparent pricing.

But it goes on to suggest:

The Programme still has a significant number of challenges to overcome to reach its stated savings objectives and its aspiration to fundamentally change central government ICT buying behaviours.

In particular, departments have yet to fully change their culture in terms of approach to ICT as old ways of doing things are so deeply engrained.

Another problem that the G-Cloud has faced is one that has been pointed out vigorously by former Programme Director Chris Chant: lack of resource.

Responding to a blog post by Government Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Liam Maxwell in February, Chant said:

G-Cloud is still woefully underfunded and under-resourced, and its members are still flogging away evenings and weekends to maintain the excellent service buyers and suppliers have enjoyed..It’s time to get your hand in the Cabinet Office’s financial director’s pocket and get this key programme funded. Or all the great stuff that you want to do at low cost and high-speed will stall.

While originally the estimates for G-Cloud staffing were in the region of 20 people, there are in reality only 5 - and most of them are part time.

This of course makes their achievements to date all the more impressive.

But the report tacitly queries how sustainable this situation is.

To date the G-Cloud Programme has made considerable progress despite limited resources. The challenge now is to fundamentally change government IT buying behaviours and key to this is reshaping the programme to focus on the commercial aspects of the Cloudstore as a retail proposition, improving the user experience and engaging the buying community. A commercial business case is being drafted to release funds and headcount to reach the ambitious cultural and financial objectives.

More money or a new home?

So, maybe more money and more people? Possibly. Or maybe there's another option?

It's long been rumoured that the G-Cloud programme will be absorbed into the wider Government Digital Service (GDS) - and I'm hearing a lot of whispers across the UK cloud and public sector markets over the past couple of weeks that just such a move may in fact be round the corner.

If true, this could be a very good move. GDS was set up within the ERG to

 to ensure the government offers world-class digital products that meet people’s needs.

Bringing G-Cloud under GDS would make a lot of sense in many respects. All roads do after all lead back to the central Digital by Default policy where the emphasis shifts from traditional technology paradigms to digital transactions as standard.

As Government Chief Technology Officer Liam Maxwell told Computer Weekly last week:

There is a lot of confusion in some quarters about what is digital and what is IT. When you state what the nomenclature is and what things actually mean, which is what the manual does. Digital is a transformation play, it is about transforming the business, it just happens to involve quite a lot of technology.

Maxwell also makes the telling point that cloud computing is changing the nature of everything, including technology:

That is a really big cultural change. This is our way of making sure people are aware of that transition.

Bringing G-Cloud under the wider GDS remit would also be a logical next step to the Public Cloud First mandate that has been imposed on central government. Policing that is going to take more resources than the current G-Cloud structure can muster. No point in having a stick if you're not ready to hit someone with it...

Denise McDonagh, the current G-Cloud programme director, made the point last month that there's still a long way to go with the G-Cloud and there is no room for complacency:

"We must continue to raise awareness, and make the buying process easier and clearer still. This is about helping the marketplace through to a position of relative stability and maturity – where we no longer talk about G-Cloud as a novelty; but when it’s just there, an accepted and routine way for the public sector to buy IT; when you can find the services that meet your needs; when we’re offering the services that users want; and when there is real competition that means we can do all this for substantially less than today.

"Yes, we’ve come a long way, and yes, I believe G-Cloud is a real game-changer, but we’re not there yet, and there is still more to be done if we’re to see a lasting transition in our way of thinking about how we choose and use IT."

All told, the way ahead for the G-Cloud programme is most likely as part of a wider strategy, but still maintaining its own identity as something to champion.

There are still sceptics and cynics about the G-Cloud in a way that there are not about GDS and its work.

Being part of a bigger whole might well go some way towards convincing the laggards and luddites that the government is serious about this cloud stuff and it's time to buck up their ideas.