UK Government has trouble at ‘t IT mill; Departments blame Maude, Maude blames Departments

Two major UK government departments are having such serious problems with their IT systems, that their Ministers have complained at Cabinet level. They're blaming IT procurement policies forced through by Francis Maude, his Chief Procurement Officer Bill Crothers and their colleagues in the Cabinet Office.

The Departments have been pushed into using a range of suppliers, including some smaller firms, instead of using the previous single supplier contract held by Fujitsu. The new arrangements save 40% in cost terms, according to the Cabinet Office. But surprise surprise, there are some issues emerging. As the FT reported,

Vince Cable, business secretary, and Ed Davey at the energy department told David Cameron last week that their officials had been struggling with intermittent email, internet and network connections since they started migrating to new computer systems in early May. The switch from big IT firms to smaller suppliers has been heavily trailed by Francis Maude who is determined to end an “oligopoly” of large suppliers and hand a far bigger share of the £7bn government IT market to smaller companies.

Cable has suggested other Departments should not migrate to the new arrangements until the problems have been ironed out. But "another Whitehall official" (possibility Crothers who is close to the FT) blamed the departments saying they were trying to "shift blame for their own mistakes. All departments remain responsible for their own technology and service procurement.”

And there are positives in terms of the Cabinet Office strategy. There's no doubt large suppliers have sometimes exploited government's lack of skills in areas such as procurement and IT. Involving more small, dynamic firms in supplying government makes a lot of sense in theory at least. But equally, there are some issues with moving away from a prime to a multi-supplier approach, and with using smaller firms as well. They include:

  • Integration issues between different suppliers and systems - both existing and stitching together the new supplier landscape.
  • Lack of clarity of responsibility - I suspect most procurement people would put this top of the list of potential problems. Who do I kick when things go wrong if I have multiple suppliers? They will no doubt all blame someone else when the kicking starts!
  • A simple issue of lack of experience of those smaller firms or those new to government.
  • Linked to that, the sheer complexity of some aspects around working with government - such as security requirements which have often caused suppliers to come unstuck.

A final thought - this is maybe not a good time for Maude to fall out with Cabinet colleagues and get bad press in the FT, when the expectation is for a Cabinet reshuffle before too long. Will he make it to the next election? I hope so, because apart from the good stuff he has done for procurement, it would be nice if he answered one of my FOI questions before he goes...

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  1. Secret Squirrel:

    Re: nice to have an FOI answered….

    And me.

    The policy isn’t a Crothers policy though. It has its genesis here

    It’s the brainchild of Mark Thompson, Chair/CEO of a smaller IT supplier and Liam Maxwell, who now works for Cabinet Office as Chief Technology Officer.

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