How’s the UK government IT strategy going from a procurement perspective?

(We're pleased to feature another post from Ross Mulkern, our resident expert on Finland, heavy metal guitar, and government IT strategy...)

The NAO recently released its six month review of progress for the new Government ICT Strategy.

“The Strategy” as the report rather ominously refers to it, was drawn up with the intention of reducing waste and project failure in ICT via a series of reforms across procurement, project delivery and ICT, culminating in the creation of a common ICT infrastructure across government as a whole. The report points to changes in procurement as being crucial to the effective achievement of this aim, placing particular emphasis on the need for “leaner” procurement processes - decreasing timescale and “providing standards and contracts to enable government bodies to buy ICT at lower cost.”, as well as greater integration between those responsible for procurement and IT.

Whilst the likes of Australia, Denmark and The Netherlands have opted for a more phased approach to achieving similar reforms, the Government Strategy places a strong emphasis on swift implementation, seeking to reform multiple business areas in parallel, whilst drawing from existing budgets. The result has been something of a collaborative effort across government departments, with the Crown Representatives, the recently formed crack-squad of procurement professionals charged with co-ordinating Whitehall’s procurement spending, charged with helping foster relationships with ICT suppliers and small businesses.

So what progress has been made thus far?

Well, whilst seven of the seventeen actions due by September were completed on time (that’s 41% maths fans!), eight were delayed until November with a further two facing more significant delays. So whilst not bad, not really great either.

One of the challenges faced by Chief Information Officers in this period was a notable gap in contract and supplier skills management, as well as a general lack of suitably qualified IT professionals. As well a shortage of skills on the IT front, the NAO report expresses a strong concern at the Government’s poor history when it comes to managing commercial relationships/contracts and procurement, going as far as to state that;

“Indeed, suppliers told us that they doubted whether government had the appropriate skills to move from using one major supplier to deliver ICT solutions and services, to managing many suppliers of different sizes providing different services.”

There has been a lot of this kind of talk lately, when it comes to directing procurement towards smaller suppliers, but as Peter’s recent posts have shown, those within Whitehall are still occasionally reluctant to take a perceived risk and put their money where their mouths are.

However, in this instance, it should also be borne in mind that the government intends to draw only from existing budgets to implement the Strategy, meaning that cost, more so that usual, is an important factor. The common IT infrastructure which constitutes a large part of these reforms is the one area where the Cabinet Office has predicted savings, intending to use a competitive market to drive down costs, buying from a number of smaller suppliers as opposed to signing a few big contracts.

The most advanced project is the Public Services Network, a secure communication network. Through the Government Procurement Service, they are looking to award contracts to a number of suppliers by next month, and pilots across a number of schools, local authorities and emergency services have shown the network to be extremely effacious - Kent Public Services Network Partnership reported that it had achieved ten times their previous network capacity, with no increase in cost, so that’s good.

So in answer to the question, “Has anything actually happened in Government IT procurement in the last year?” The answer is a lot of talking, but perhaps a little less walking. However, it does appear that the proposed reforms may finally be stirring into life, provided all goes to plan, of course…

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