A current stoush between top level UK Government consultants gives some valuable pointers for any Government looking to control its IT spending (not mentioning any names, Joe.)

“The Government Digital Service’s (GDS) current monopoly position on providing Whitehall IT places it at high risk of repeating the same costly IT disasters of the past.”

So says an article in The Register on  22 Apr 2015, by  Kat Hall,  GDS monopoly leaves UK.gov at risk of IT cock-ups, warns report. This article was savaged in a 24 Apr 2015 blog by Simon Wardley, who works for the CSC Leading Edge Forum. Simon’s blog, Gov should start handing over large wads of cash to us, preferably in a truck, starts in on the article itself with comments which included, “At this moment in time (due to the election), Civil Servants are governed by the Purdah convention which limits their ability to respond. What this means is that any old lobbying firm can publish any old tat knowing they’re unlikely to get a response. Launching an attack on a department at this time is about as cowardly as you can get.”

Simon then turns his attention to the BDO Report, and is immediately suspicious of the Executive Summary, which warns that “GDS faces three major risks which need to be addressed in order to ensure the continued success of its transformation agenda.” Simon notes ‘I’m already starting to get that icky feeling that “major risks which need to be sorted” is code for “pay us lots of money.”’ However, he proceeds with an interesting and instructive analysis of each of the three major risks: accountability, commercial and efficiency.

Looking at Accountability Risk, Simon gives “bit of background” on his own earlier experience visiting departments which “suffered from excessive outsourcing i.e. they had outsourced so much of their engineering capability they were unable to effectively negotiate with vendors.”  He notes “With a bit more internal skill, I’ve seen £1.7M contracts tumble to £96,000. Yes, 95% savings are not unheard of.” A key factor is a policy of challenging spending. “The Departments are accountable and they hold the budget.  However, CHALLENGE is an essential part of effective management and that requires the skills necessary to challenge.”

Under Commercial Risk, Simon notes that a key focus of GDS has been on user need rather than delivery to a specification. He uses an Example Map to illustrate the methods and techniques involved in this approach. He summarises: “If someone is asking you to sign up to an outcome based traditional model which in fact means delivery against a defined specification document for the entirety of a large complex system using a very structured process THEN you’ll almost always end up with massive cost overruns and happy vendors / consultants. I have to be clear, IMHO this is scam and has been known about for a long time.”

Simon adds, “For reference, if you want to know how to deal with a complex system then once you have a map, I find the following a useful guide. Please note, for both methods and procurement techniques then multiple methods are needed in a large complex system. This is also another reason why you map in order to break complex systems into components to treat them effectively. I cannot reiterate how important it is to have purchasing specialists supporting the engineering function. You don’t want to lose those skills necessary to challenge. NB the diagram is not a replacement for thought, it’s just a guide.”

Under Efficiency Risk, Simon quotes the National Audit Office’s executive leader, “the government, Parliament and my own organisation, the NAO, were very aware of how the old fashioned world of long, complex IT projects limited value for money”. Simon adds “To put it bluntly in my language, we were being shafted.” He goes on to question (and ridicule) the recommendations of the Report, concluding that while the GDS achievements already have been remarkable, there is still plenty of good discussion to be had about how to make things better. “However reasonable discussion or debate doesn’t involve a consultancy publishing a report flogging a bunch of dubious and outdated methods – let’s take skill away from challenge, lets hand over advisory to private sector, let’s focus on specification documents – as solutions to risks which aren’t even quantified. There’s nothing to debate, it’s just mudslinging. I’m guessing that’s why they published it at a time when no-one could respond.”

The follow up should be interesting. Simon notes “I’ll come back to this next week as I want to see what else crawls out of the woodwork here.”