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New UK IT Strategy: Cheaper is Stronger than Smarter or Greener

By Andrea Di Maio | January 27, 2010 | 1 Comment


Today the UK Cabinet Office released the much awaited document describing the UK IT strategy for the next 10 years: Government ICT Strategy: smarter, cheaper, greener.

This is a very comprehensive and well structured strategy document, which lays out the priorities for the UK government and the broader public sector in rather clear terms. Unlike the previous strategy (Transformational Government: Enabled by Technology), issued five years ago, this aims at covering a longer period of time (up to 2020) and it does not contain any reference to the use of IT to support or transform service delivery.

The longer timeframe is reasonable, as some aspects of the strategy imply a radical change in the way IT is sourced, delivered and managed, and this level of change will take a fair amount of time to be absorbed both by government and the market.

The disconnect with the service delivery part is more surprising. While the strategy makes reference to the Digital Britain report issued in 2009, it does not link in any way to the more recent document on Putting the frontline first: Smarter Government, published at the end of 2009 (see previous post). The latter addresses the streamlining of central government and the rebalancing between front and back office, and one would expect a significant role of ICT to support this.

The strategy is articulated in 14 different strands or work streams, which address three main areas:

  • Common infrastructure: this includes Public Service Network (PSN), G-Cloud, Data Center Rationalization, Government Application Store (G-AS), Shared Services, and Desktop Services.
  • Common standards: these include Architecture and standards; Open Source, Open Standards, Reuse; Greening Government ICT; Information security and assurance
  • Common capabilities: these include Professionalizing IT-enabled change; Reliable project delivery; Supply management; and International alignment and coordination

What is quite clear from the structure and tone of the strategy is that the overwhelming priority is to make IT significantly cheaper than it is today. The “smarter” and “greener” attributes are purely instrumental to reducing the cost of acquiring and operating IT.

Asymptotically, the Public Service Network is meant to be the only communication network, G-cloud the only infrastructure, the Application Store (a sort of on steroids)  the only procurement channel and exchange for applications, and so forth. Also the increased focus on environmental sustainability, open standards and open source, the reuse of application components, a more integrated supply management, all go in the direction of reducing IT cost (or – putting it more politically – better managing those costs). The strands on data center rationalization, shared services and desktop services all look like intermediate steps toward a massive consolidation through G-cloud and the G-AS.

If the big picture is one where IT gets much more centralized, harmonized and rationalized, the strand on the IT profession does not seem entirely in sync. One would argue that departments, agencies and local authorities will become users and buyers of IT services, more than anything else. This should have a more disruptive impact on the role and size of government IT organizations than the strategy suggests. Also, rumors of radical outsourcing options being considered for the UK government IT would not look unfounded in the context of a triad based on PSN, G.Cloud and G-AS .

One simple answer to this migh be that IT staff will be working on agency-specific applications: but the strategy postulates that G-AS, together with the greater adoption of open standards and open source, will help here as well. And – as I noted earlier – there is nothing in the strategy about the front-office, citizen-engagement, service-delivery role of IT.

Finally, irrespective of how compelling and organic the vision is, this will pose formidable implementation challenges. The section on governance details the role of the CIO Council and how different strands will be managed. However the complexity of some of the strands is almost frightening: think about the implications of G-cloud on multiple roles in the IT organization and beyond, on the market, on vendor management, and (potentially) even on compliance with European internal market principles (more on this when I’ll dive into G-Cloud in a future post).

The only, very strong ally in keeping all these strands together will be, indeed, the Treasury and the significant cost savings that every government organization is required to achieve.

As I said, cheaper is stronger than smarter or greener.

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1 Comment

  • Mike Manisty says:

    Reality in government IT is too often a triumph of procrastination and pedestrianisation over inspiration and aspiration! To achieve such a radical change will require the sacrifice of a number of sacred cows, including procurement policy, HR policy, security accreditation, sourcing contract overkill, project governance, budget delegation, just for starters. The real question is the extent to which business units will be empowered to choose the IT services and technologies they need to deliver value on the ground. The normal outcome of so many grand initiatives is to restrict choice and suppress the very obvious opportunities to exploit the new technologies and systems that the public take for granted in their daily lives.

    Perhaps REAL cost constraints will be the disruptive force that will make this happen over the next few years. But it will need bold leadership at all levels and including the supply chain, which reflects the past culture – not least because many of their staff came across from the public sector as part of the outsourcing era. In this context it would be great to see smaller companies able to compete for work with a minimum of hassle.