Friday, 22 October 2010

Government Transparency

Comments on the Coalition Government Proposals.

The proposals for ICT are welcome but the significance of the topic merited a category in its own right within this document. While, the points raised here are a positive start but they will also require a significant cultural shift to make a real difference. Despite outsourcing significant amounts of IT provision to the private sector there is insufficient trust (or appropriate controls) over what is delivered and many departments shadow their suppliers in mirroring roles which creates significant cost increases for questionable value.

Government IT has a poor reputation that is not always deserved and needs to be improved upon, a more open public perspective of the standards expected from suppliers (particularly on the larger outsourcing contracts) should become the norm. If we can see how privatised rail companies and the like are performing then why not make similar moves to publish the quality of privatised IT services?

Government procurement practices are also in need of change if this is to work. The current OGC procurement processes contain some good thinking but lack any identifiable process structure and present a confusing mess to anyone trying to engage with the public sector, it is good to see that the woefully inadequate explanations presented until this month are now being reviewed –

Research suggests that the UK relies on less than 10 suppliers for the bulk of its IT provision and many of them will see no gain from a shift to open source and may positively discourage it in the selection processes. Equally they will present strong arguments against smaller organisations providing services where stringent requirements are used to prevent genuine opportunities for innovative organisations. Simply by dragging their heels it is possible for the larger outsourcing contract holders to destroy the ability of smaller organisations to engage in meaningful dialogue however good their offerings may be. How will this level playing field be created for open source or smaller suppliers? Where external suppliers are responsible for product selection how will it be operated, measured and reported?

There is also a significant need to consider where technology is now going, the rise and availability of cloud-computing solutions is challenging the status quo and presenting an alternative with significantly different cost benefit implications. The proposed Government cloud seems to have some merits where data security may be an issue and would see an evolution of Gershon’s push for shared service capabilities but there are just as many non data-security critical applications that could be benefiting now. Current contracts are too large, too long and too expensive and current de-constructions, as with DWP, are still much too large to allow even high quality tier 2 suppliers to stand a reasonable chance of winning business.

There is a point that seems to have been overlooked as well, the real need for transparency is transparency of process; document points of interaction and publish them, not in lengthy narratives, but in a form that can be easily understood with additional detail behind if it is necessary or required. The UK Government has the people and the technological capabilities to do this and has made insufficient progress. It is time for transparency to be taken seriously and to be meaningful, at one time the public sector won awards for plain English, there is a real opportunity for this new Government to move in the right direction and not just make it more transparent but make it genuinely understandable. ICT should be simplifying the citizens interaction with Government but the current position leaves a lot to be desired.

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