Government ignores IT spending recommendations

Despite recommendations to overhaul IT procurement, the government continues to get fleeced by a “cartel” of suppliers, with MPs demanding an independent investigation.

Following a report last year highlighting the serious lack of expertise in IT at senior executive levels, a select committee report has shown that there has been insufficient action to stop haemorrhaging money.

The Public Accounts Committee, headed up by MP Bernard Jenkins, also slammed an oligopoly of IT firms which were reaping the benefits of ineffective project leadership throughout Whitehall departments.

Many failings were condemned, such as a lack of accountability with swiftly changing executive personnel, a deficit of IT-minded staff being trusted with decision making roles, and the widely panned cartel of firms.

All of these factors, and others, have created a situation wherein the government is throwing money away on costly IT projects, getting into locked-in contracts that benefit suppliers, and generally making resource draining mistakes in IT projects.  The costly NHS debacle is just one example where better leadership would have saved more than a few quid.

Rather than dealing with some of the major problems facing Whitehall, it seems there has been collective thumb-twiddling.

Following recommendations in a previous report, a follow-up has concluded that, while there has been a positive reaction, a lack of comprehension about the problems still exists.  This has led to recommendations that independent investigations should be conducted into business practices.

The PASC report claims that more needs to be done to reach the aim of becoming an “intelligent” customer – a feat it has so far managed to do precisely the opposite of – and to bring about major necessary structural change.

The report concluded that nothing had been done to disrupt the money-hungry band of IT suppliers that dominate spending, one of the principle allegations aimed at Whitehall. In order to deal with this the select committee is demanding more accurate cost benchmarks to avoid more money falling from its pockets.

A government approach to using legacy systems was labelled inadequate in the report along with an attack on the lack of risk-registering.

The Cabinet Office’s commitment to bring about necessary changes was also roundly panned, with the report claiming money-saving aims had essentially been thrown out of the window.

Concerns over the ability to address mounting calls for an ‘agile’ approach to IT were also voiced with little power given to those in support of more flexible procurement methods.

PASC chair Bernard Jenkins claimed that to avoid careering into more and more IT catastrophes it is necessary to bring in IT executives and buyers from commercial firms to plug gaps in expertise.

If this is to work it could reduce some of the mammoth bills that the government has been happy to pay to consultants in the past.

David Chan, a public sector IT procurement expert at  City University, believes that a lack of reaction from the government was always likely despite the previous PASC report.

“It is disappointing but it’s not a big surprise,” he told TechEye.  “However the government is caught between a rock and a hard place with legacy systems.”

Chan believes that, despite calls for an independent investigation into IT deals strategies, it is more important that there is greater clarity over the way deals are conducted: “The main problem at the moment is that we don’t have enough information about contractors, the length of contacts and so on. An independent review may actually delay the process.

“We need to see an end to customer confidentiality being used as a reason to not publish contract information.”

Chan says that transparency, in the end, would overhaul the system. If there is enough transparency, he says, we’d see some of the mistakes that are being made corrected over time. “A move to inform the length of contracts and allow for changes at shorter periods would be a benefit of greater transparency,” Chan said.

“We need to go forward with transparency and stop hiding behind confidentiality in the future.”