Government information technology (IT) is under relentless scrutiny and reform. Barely a month seems to pass at the moment when either another organisation issues a report on the topic, or the Cabinet Office announces a new initiative or appointment.

Recently, for example, we’ve had the National Audit Office‘s “Information and Communications Technology in Government Landscape Review” and the Institute for Government‘s “System Error: fixing the flaws in Government IT“. And the Cabinet Office has hardly been idle either, announcing initiatives ranging from the opening up of public services, to the appointment of a new Director of ICT Futures and the saving of over £1bn on procurement.

In June, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published their short report Information and Communications Technology in Government. It took the view that

ICT is not well enough embedded in departments’ business, and as a result not enough reform programmes have had ICT at the core. Problems have arisen where expectations for systems are too grand and the proposals from suppliers are unrealistic. Projects have been too big, too long, too ambitious and out of date by the time the ICT is implemented

This misalignment between the business of government, the effective design and operation of public services, and the use of IT was also a common theme in evidence provided during the more recent Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) review of Government IT, whose report – “Government and IT. ‘A recipe for rip-offs’: Time for a new approach” – is published today.

Their inquiry also found that only a few departments have CIOs on their boards, raising questions, in an age of “digital by default“, about where and how civil service management teams obtain their understanding of, and insight into, the effective use of information systems and their integration into their business plans. The PASC report found that

the Government needs to possess the necessary skills and knowledge in-house, to manage suppliers and understand the potential IT has to transform the services it delivers. Currently the outsourcing of the government’s IT service means that many civil service staff, along with their knowledge, skills, networks and infrastructure has been transferred to suppliers. The Government needs to rebuild this capacity urgently.

Importantly, they also emphasised that IT should not be regarded as somehow separate from public services (as something that happens “over there”, conducted only by a technical elite), but rather that:

Knowledge about how modern information systems and technology can be used to improve public services should not be restricted to the IT profession – this knowledge is essential to the work of all senior civil servants responsible for designing and delivering policy. The Government should explore how departmental boards and senior officials can best benefit from professional training and support in technology policy. A systematic programme to improve these skills across the senior civil service would also help support the Government’s aim of ensuring public services become “digital by default” by improving the integration of technology and policy throughout the policy-making process.

The issue of the cultural changes needed to help drive a more successful use of IT in Government was touched upon during the oral evidence with the Rt Hon Francis Maude MP (Q.483+), where the Minister stated

I am always a bit sceptical about trying to achieve cultural change. I think the thing to do is try to change behaviour and, out of changed behaviour, a different culture emerges… you do not achieve cultural change by trying to change the culture; you achieve it by changing behaviours, and the culture change follows from the behaviour change

The key action now is for Government to distil these numerous reviews, reports and recommendations into a short, actionable plan that can deliver  successful outcomes. This will start with a determined effort to improve its baseline data – as the PASC report observes:

The Government’s own information about its IT is woefully inadequate. This lack of data means that governments have failed to benchmark the price it pays for IT goods and services; this data must be collected centrally to allow the Government to obtain the best possible price from the market.

Importantly it also calls for:

All IT procurement contracts [to] be published in full to ensure transparency and restore trust. This would allow external experts to challenge current practices and identify ways services could be delivered differently as well as more economically.

And, with the majority of major IT expenditure committed within existing contracts, the report says that Government should use such information and transparency to help:

… challenge and hold to account current providers, and … renegotiate, disaggregate and re-compete existing contracts where it becomes clear that more cost effective delivery mechanisms are available.

The Committee raise disturbing issues aired during their inquiry, ranging from claims of a “cartel” made during oral evidence to an over-reliance on an “oligopoly” of large suppliers. Addressing this apparent distortion of an effective, open marketplace in the supply and provision of IT services in the public sector forms another key recommendation in the PASC report, namely the need to:

Widen … the supplier base. The Government must expand its supplier base by promoting fair and open competition and engaging with innovative SMEs. To widen the supplier base the Government needs to reduce the size of its contracts and greatly simplify the procurement process. It must also adopt common standards and ensure that systems interoperate to eliminate over-reliance on a small group of suppliers, and commoditise where possible. Most importantly, departments need the capacity to deal directly with a wider range of suppliers, especially SMEs.

The Committee also request an independent investigation into allegations made during its inquiry:

The Government should urgently commission an independent, external investigation to determine whether there is substance to these serious allegations of anti-competitive behaviour and collusion. The Government should also provide a trusted and independent escalation route to enable SMEs confidentially to raise allegations of malpractice.

These various reports, and the ongoing Cabinet Office commitment to reform, suggest that Government IT still has a major period of significant change ahead. If suppliers thought the recent round of negotiations aimed at securing cost efficiencies and savings were the end game, they will need to think again. The direction of travel is clear: what remains less clear at present are the mechanisms to be used to drive the necessary outcomes. Whether for example the Government will adopt measures to prioritise small firms to give them guaranteed amounts of work until the market becomes more balanced. And how the behavioural and cultural changes will be incentivised and delivered.

With several major policy programmes in development, such as Universal Credits and Real Time Information, there is a clear opportunity for the Government to apply the lessons learned and recommendations made across recent reports and inquiries – and to deliver policy outcomes that show the real potential of IT in helping improve the quality and efficiency of our public services.

We await the Government’s official response to the new PASC report with interest.

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