This Tuesday (15th March) the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) held its second evidence session as part of it’s Inquiry into the Government’s use of IT. It is beginning to seem like open season on ‘the Government’s use of IT’, with many studies and reports from think-tanks, the NAO and assorted organisations and individuals. One startling feature of this open season is the remarkable unanimity of the advice and recommendations being given to Government. The preoccupations of PASC for the evidence session is instructive in this regard, indeed re-cast them as recommendations and they become the executive summary of the consensus that has emerged from the various studies.
- How to realise the government’s ambition to award more contracts to SMEs;
- Whether procurement rules are in need of reform;
- How IT should be involved in the policy development process; and
- How the government could adopt new technologies and ways of working such as open source, open standards, agile development, and cloud computing.*
Crucially, PASC is cross-party, holds real weight, and makes recommendations direct to Government.
All good so far, but if you want to ask questions about reforming procurement, awarding contracts to SMEs, and Open Source and Open Standards, who would you ask? As it turns out only one of the four witnesses came from an SME, surprise number one (though fortunately in this case the IT SME was Erudine, and their CEO, Martin Rice, gave a fearlessly frank account from the SME perspective). Surprise number two is a little more disturbing. Representing Open Source, SMEs and Agile development was the Director of Strategy and Execution at CSC. Not best known for Open Source or being an SME or even for Agile development. CSC is in fact a $17bn per annum System Integrator with 93,000 employees and one of the major SI suppliers to Government.
Predictably the picture put to the panel was really quite rosy. All in favour of SMEs here, lots of Open Source in Government already, and nice idea about that agile stuff but it won’t work as it’s reactive and projects would be shelved due to being left incomplete. The message was “let’s just keep things as they are, shall we?” Martin Rice’s comment is apposite at this point “An oligarchy is not going to disband of its own accord”
The Cabinet Office’s estimate of the cost of Public Sector ICT is a minimum of £16.9bn per year. The stakes in this critical reform are high (and note in passing so is the revenue the big SIs receive from the current system). If this political process is going to work, and we are to get the financial and other benefits of reform in this area, it would help for the questions to be answered by more people and organisations without such a big stake in maintaining the status quo, a status quo that many agree needs to be reformed.
*Postscript: I submitted written evidence to the PASC Inquiry. My answers to the four points we started with would be:
- Just do it.
- It should be considered as a factor from the start.
- Just do it.