Francis Maude promises end to bloated IT contracts

Francis Maude addressed chief executives from 31 government IT suppliers today including IBM, HP and CapGemini, promising that costly IT contracts will be resigned to the past.

Maude, the Cabinet Office minister who oversees £45bn of central government spending each year cited mistakes such as the £12.7bn NHS national programme, which ran wildly over budget, and promised to reduce bureaucracy involved in procuring services.

“Government will no longer offer the easy margins of the past. We will open up the market to smaller suppliers and mutuals and we will expect you to partner with them as equals, not as sub-ordinates,” said Maude.

“The days of the mega IT contracts are over, we will need you to rethink the way you approach projects, making them smaller, off the shelf and open source where possible.”

“We will expect you to be transparent in all your dealings with us and for the terms of the contracts we sign with you to go up online.”

Maude promised that the government would play its own role in reducing costs, fitting comfortably into a wider narrative of reducing bureaucracy across Whitehall that has been vaunted since the Conservatives came to power.

Maude griped at the length it took to procure services, claiming that public sector deals would often take “twice as long” as those in the private, due to the notoriously slow turning wheels of the Her Majesty’s Civil Service.

Maude gave the example of “some 6,000 pages of guidance on procurement” that would be given to buyers, adding that “this is just wasted time and money on both sides of the equation, and it is something we urgently need to address.”

“This is at the root of much of the bureaucracy, duplication and confusion in this area,” he said. “You will have had to deal with contracts where the specification changed 10 times before you were through, where your employees were manmarked by civil servants and where the individuals you were working with constantly changed.”

“You will all have experienced procurements which seemed to go on forever, cost millions of pounds and took countless hours of your employees’ time and energy. I know how frustrating this all was and I can promise you here today that we will do things differently.”

According to the Telegraph the Government has been responsible for IT projects which have cost taxpayers more than an estimated £26bn, and have supplied their Top Four favourite botch jobs for your reading pleasure:

1. National Programme for IT (NHS) – overran by 450 percent, costing in total £12.7bn

2. Defence Information Infrastructure (MoD) – 30 months late, more than £180m over budget. Cost at least £7bn

3. Libra system (courts management for magistrates) – Fujitsu bid £146m in 1998. Final cost more than £400m

4. Single Payment System (for paying farmers’ subsidies) – cost £350m, already “potentially obsolete”

However while Maude is attempting to portray the current government as some sort of benevolent hatchet-men, they also took the controversial decision to get rid of the ContactPoint IT database scheme which offered a way to support information sharing for child protection, a large and ambitious project which was, in turn, expensive.   

But though all this posturing from Maude certainly sends a clear message to the public that the government is going to attempt to stop splurging money in the way that the previous administration may have done, exactly how much of this talk is purely hot air is unclear.

For example, not long after an announcement was made that ICT projects costing more than £1 million would be banned, it was announced by chancellor George Osbourne that a Met police project for £190 million would be renewed.  So how likely is it that, if good old Gideon’s promises to tighten the belt prove so immediately ineffective, Maude will prove any different?

Of course, the Cabinet Office has close ties with large firms the very same that Maude has been making promises to. There was A Memorandum of Understanding signed recently by both Oracle and Microsoft, a deal that “deepens the collaborative relationship we already have with UK Government,” according to Nicola Hodgson, Microsoft’s general manager of Public Sector, and shows major firms getting ever closer to positions of influence within government. 

And while the Cabinet Minister may have the best intentions of reducing costs, it would also  need to have the backing of the Treasury to reject any schemes that individual Departments would propose which, due to the constant battles occurring across Whitehall, may make the changes he portrays as so simple to be rather more difficult.