UK politics is heating up and the technology wars rage ahead of 2015 general election

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez June 24, 2014
Summary:
There have been a number of stories in recent weeks that point to technology being a central fighting point for parties as they gear up for a national vote next year.

And so it begins. With next year's general election looming over Whitehall, battle grounds are beginning to take shape and we are starting to get an idea about

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what changes both Labour and the Liberal Democrats (you never know) would make if they managed to win a majority over the Conservatives. Interestingly, it seems that technology is becoming one of these key fighting points, with ministers and government officials alike hitting out at the Coalition government's current policies. I suppose this is hardly surprising considering that IT spend in central government is estimated to reach a whopping £7 billion a year and there are flagship programmes at stake, such as Universal Credit.

However, let's start with some background. This current government has been fascinating to watch if you're interested in public sector IT. Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude has made it his mission to change the way that technology is bought by government departments and has spent a lot of his time pissing off some of the world's largest suppliers by creating mechanisms and mandates that are working to break the stranglehold of the 'Oligopoly' on Whitehall. This has largely been done through new frameworks such as the G-Cloud, new procurement approaches (the SIAM tower model) and through the brilliant work of the Government Digital Service (GDS), all of which have been set up to introduce more SMEs into the government supply chain, as well as more innovation and agility.

Unsurprisingly some of the big tech suppliers and systems integrators haven't been particularly happy about the changes taking place in central government, with a few speaking out and some even making threats. However, this has been countered with a stack of grateful support from the SME community (and to be honest, a lot of the media). The old way of doing things wasn't working, with government IT cock up after government IT cock up (see the National Programme for IT if you fancy a painful read) and some healthy changes have broadly been welcomed. That's not to say that it has been plain sailing – there have been a fair few bumps along the way – but it has been interesting to see government for once at least trying to keep up with the changes happening in the private sector.

But things have now begun to settle and the other political parties are having to form an opinion on these changes themselves. Last week we saw a fascinating story emerge in the Financial Times, with Business Secretary (and Liberal Democrat) Vince Cable hitting out after his department, along with the Energy Department, were struggling with a migration to a new IT system that had previously been managed by Fujitsu. Cable was complaining about intermittent email and network problems and urged his Cabinet colleagues to refrain from IT renewals until the government could learn from the lessons at his own department. He fears that the combination of cost cutting and the use of small firms could backfire.

The new system makes use of several suppliers with shorter-term contracts and reduces running costs by 40 percent over five years. Another department official was quoted as saying getting “more SMEs in was an idealistic Tory policy in 2011 to shake up Whitehall” but that they are not “necessarily the best fit for this sort of task”. I'd just like to point out at this point that although there are SMEs involved in the new system, the system integrator is global company CGI, which seems to have walked away unscathed from the debate.

I'll reserve my opinion for the end, but Georgina O'Toole over at TechMarketView wrote an interesting comment on the story, where she believes that the Oligopoly may face a bit of a renaissance in the wake of the backlash from the departments. She said:

“In our view, the pendulum has swung too far. The Cabinet Office refers to legacy ICT contracts as expensive, inflexible and outdated; but moving away from this style of contract does not necessarily mean moving away from the large SIs. And it appears that it is beginning to dawn on some in UK Government that you can’t do big IT without the big SIs. A mixed economy approach – involving large and small suppliers - is what’s needed. The good thing to come out of the Government’s recent approach is that the large SIs have been encouraged to work more with SMEs and treat them well. 

“Until now it has been early days for the ‘Tower’ approach [mix of companies operating under a systems integrator] and too early to see the impact of the new on departments and agencies. But, as the new suppliers start to make their mark, there will be more ‘lessons learnt’. If BIS and DECC are anything to go by, the pendulum will start to swing back, but it will likely be a few years before we see a real impact on Government ICT procurement.”

The future of GDS

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Another area that will be a strong focus for political parties in the lead up to the election is the work of the Government Digital Service. GDS has grown significantly since its conception and has taken on a lot of the responsibility for getting government departments to transform their legacy systems and transactional products into innovative, agile online tools for the public. There's still a load of work to do, but progress has been made and money has been saved. However, Labour and its excellent shadow minister Chi Onwurah (who has also blogged for diginomica previously) are conducting their own review of digital services and have called into question the future role of GDS. Onwurah was quoted last week in Computerworld UK as saying that something along the lines of GDS is needed, but it may not exist in its current form. She has also previously criticised the unit for alienating staff in Whitehall departments. She said:

“We need the work that GDS is doing, we will build on the work that GDS is doing, and if GDS didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent something very like them.

“Now, I haven’t finished the review…but certainly in terms of having that skillset, there’s so much transformation going to be needed because the next government should be a digital government, that those skills and that kind of approach of excellence will certainly be required.”

Onwurah and Labour have also called into question the role of SMEs in government in the past – hinting that although they have a part to play, that perhaps the pendulum had swung too far away from the big suppliers.

Universal Credit might be taking a breather

Finally, I noticed last week that Labour's shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves kicked off a debate about the future of the coalition government's flagship welfare reform project, Universal Credit. We have written extensively about the shortcomings of the multi-billion project that has faced a number of 'challenges' since its development begun – which you can read about here and here. However, the gist is that millions of pounds has been written off thanks to useless software and a new digital system is now being developed alongside the original, more traditional, system, which will ultimately be scrapped. Although Reeves said that she supports the Universal Credit policy in principle, she believes that the Department for Work and Pensions has been in “chaos” under Iain Duncan Smith and that Labour would take time to consider where the project is going wrong before continuing with development. She told the BBC:

"We set up a universal credit rescue committee in the autumn of last year because we had seen, from the National Audit Office [and] from the Public Accounts Committee, report after report showing that this project is massively over budget, and it is not going to be delivered according

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to the government timetable.

"It's going to cost £12.8bn to deliver and we don't know what sort of state it is in.

"So we have said that if we win the next election we will pause... the build of the system for three months, calling in the National Audit Office to do a warts-and-all report on it."

Iain Duncan Smith has said that he intervened at the right time and the rollout of Universal Credit into pilot areas across the UK is progressing as planned. From what I've heard the original system that is being used in pilots is fine – if you're single, unemployed, don't have a kid and don't own a house. So, the simplest type of claimant. Whether or not it will cope when this is extended to couples and families with changing circumstances, that's up for debate. However, the digital team is making good progress and is dedicated to making Universal Credit a success.

Verdict

  • This is very interesting to watch from the outside in. I've often wondered how the other parties will react after the general election, given that a lot of the policies introduced by the Cabinet Office and GDS have been widely perceived as 'long overdue'. What we have seen so far is just the start and we can expect a few more punches thrown between now and next year – let's just hope this isn't for the sake of politics and that there can be a constructive debate about what needs improving.
  • I have one main concern though. The big businesses that are pissed off have a lot of sway and I just hope that they aren't influencing the other political parties with promises of investment and funding. I have no evidence of this, but I know how these political systems work. Companies will see the opportunity to get in with Labour and the Lib Dems, with the hope of winning more money with the next government. Let's hope that this has nothing to do with political promises being made.
  • Personally, I think that the pendulum hasn't swung too far away from the big tech companies. They still play a big role and I can't think of many huge IT projects that they aren't at least involved in. Let's not use one project that has had some teething problems as a reason to go back on all the good work of handing contracts to SMEs. There is a question of whether SMEs can handle the scale of large public sector projects, never mind the procurement processes, but that should be questioned on a case by case basis.
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