Government IT cartel slammed

A select committee report has condemned a government “cartel” of IT contractors, leading to massively wasteful IT projects.

It is said that the government pays up to ten times more for work compared to the private sector, and has lead to many failed projects.

Outspoken chair of the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), Bernard Jenkin, spoke of “truly worrying accounts about the amount of money successive Governments have wasted on failed IT projects.”

He also slammed the lax attitude to handing out cash for such projects.

“According to some sources the Government pays between seven and ten times more than the standard commercial rate for its work,” he said, “however the Government does not collect the information needed to verify these claims.”

Of course there has been similar talk over the past months, with many calls for a change to the current system in select committee meetings.

Largely this involves, as mentioned in a report by the Institute for Government, a move to a more flexible or ‘agile’ process.

Whitehall, the latest report says, needs to pull its finger out to improve its IT expenditure, or else.

It must improve the information it holds on IT expenditure, to ensure government is able to make more informed choices about procurement, rather than shelling out too much.

There are also demands for more clarity in the public about IT spending.  Presumably this might make bosses a bit more careful in handing over cash for large scale deals, following a number of disastrous episodes.

Independent experts will be encouraged to voice their opinions on alternative methods of delivery.

The committee also recommends widening the supplier base. This would mean reducing contract sizes, and engaging with small and medium enterprises.

And this would lead into that desired ‘agile’ approach, hopefully allowing the government more flexibility in its IT.

Jenkins says outsourcing in government is damaging to the civil service and handing power to suppliers: “Currently the outsourcing of the government’s whole IT service means that many civil service staff, along with their knowledge, skills, networks and infrastructure have been transferred to suppliers.”

It must “rebuild this capacity urgently” if there’s any hope at all.

The verdict is damning and the committee doesn’t hold much hope. Jenkins says it’s a “wait and see” case – governments before the Coalition have consistently made an ass of public sector IT and resisted reform. “We will need to wait and see whether it can make progress in an area that has resisted so many previous attempts at reform,” he says.

According to Dr Andrew Tuson at City University London, there should be enough in the way of top level staff that can implement and manage projects “as a matter of urgency”.

“The select committee is correct to be raising concerns and there is more than enough evidence to show that there are certainly savings to be made,” he tells TechEye. “There needs to be a drive to attract relevant personnel to the civil service, and the government may have to spend money to make money here.

“The government now has to invest in IT management staff urgently to ensure that projects are properly run.

“This will involve upskilling managers in execution of IT projects, as there are questions over the skills base.”

Tuson also believes that there needs to be more accountability for project managers: “Stronger governance and accountability needs to be put into place, as any manager will prioritise what they are held directly accountable for. There is not a concern that no one can lead these projects, it is just attracting the right staff for CIOs.

“Reform won’t work until there is accountability with Ministers.”

He also says, as the report suggests, there should be more done to break up the perceived ‘cartel’ of companies awarded the big contracts.

“Yes there has been an over reliance on a small number of firms,” he tells us. “And there have been contracts awarded which last for five to ten years. But why is this the case when it is only possible to look into the future by about two to three due to changing environments? There certainly needs to be more of a focus on shorter term projects.”

However, he does believe that there may have been some overstatement in the spending figures: “There is no doubting that there has been significant overspend, but I would be interested to see how they arrived at some of the figures.

“I think what has been done is that the full price for installing equipment and service contracts and so has been given and compared to commercially sourced products.

“For example you can’t compare the price to install a computer in a government department and then compare with the price on the PC World website. But there is no denying that there has been excessive spending.”