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UK Gov’s ICT Strategy – Cloudy and in need of sunshine

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A new UK Government IT strategy is due to be launched next week according to UKauthority.com. This will be a refresh of the four-year-old Transformational Government programme is expected to be accompanied by a Treasury report on ‘Smarter government’.

A draft version of the ICT Strategy has been leaked to the Conservative opposition who have described it as ‘unambitious’. The document sets out the direction for government ICT until 2020 and seeks to save billions through greater use of social media and innovations such as an ‘App store’ and Government cloud.

The document gathers ideas from John Suffolk (UK Gov Chief Information Officer) and others into a strategic IT vision that is aligned with other government strategies including:

  • Digital Britain Strategy‘programme to secure the UK’s position as one of the world’s leading digital knowledge economies’
  • Cyber Security Strategy – sets out government plans to create an Office of Cyber Security and Cyber Security Operations center to ‘make cyber space a safe, secure and resilient place’
  • Building Britain’s Future – plan on working ‘with the British people to shape our economic recovery and together build a stronger, fairer and more prosperous country’
  • Excellence and Fairness – approach to improving public services through Citizen empowerment, New professionalism and Strategy leadership
  • Operational Efficiency Programme – requiring ‘£4 billion of savings a year on back office operations, and £3.2 billion of savings a year on IT spending’.
  • Recommendations from the Power of Information Strategy – a call for action to improve government’s use of digital technologies

Strategy Summary

UK Government ICT Strategy

The UK Government is the largest employer of IT Professionals in the UK. It spends approximately £16bn per year on technology which accounts for 4.6% of overall public sector expenditure.

The ICT Strategy has been developed to support the delivery of core public sector goals through: Improving the delivery of public services; Improving access to public services; and Increasing the efficiency of public service delivery.

It acknowledges how:

Demand for public services and expectations of levels of service are ever increasing. Citizens and business expect the same levels of access and personalisation that they see from large private sector organisations such as Amazon and Tesco.

As such public services need to be more citizen focused and utilize the power of social media and the internet as a means of transforming delivery (similar to how the web has transformed the music industry through changing the platform for delivery).

The ICT strategy is based on 14 strands of activity, which include the following initiatives:

1) A Move to Cloud Computing – The ‘G-Cloud’

The strategy envisages developing and implementing a government cloud infrastructure (or ‘G-cloud’) that would enable public bodies to source ‘ICT infrastructure, development capabilities and software applications from a secure, resilient, flexible and cost-effective service based environment’.

A target prototype of a G-cloud infrastructure in expected in early 2010 with the expectation of a standard model by the end of 2010. It’s expected the development of the G-cloud will be a key enabler ‘of the £1.6 billion savings from ICT outlined in the Operational Efficiency Programme report.’

Government departments will be able to adopt a ‘pay as you go’ model – paying only for the time applications are actually in use. They’ll be able to scale up and scale down based on the seasonality of their application needs in a similar way to how Amazon or other cloud services work. 

In the US the General Services Administration (GSA) is already working on this type of approach. Casey Coleman (GSA CIO) recently spoke about the possibility of moving up to 45% of applications – those with a FISMA rating of low – to public/private clouds. Along with this Federal CIO Vivek Kundra has been pushing for the adoption and use of commercial cloud computing services for information not classified or sensitive in nature.

NASA already has a pilot cloud computing environment setup called Nebula, and State authorities (such as Utah) are already developing their own hybrid clouds. Such developments are in their early stages, but represent a recognition of the importance of cloud computing to improve services and reduce costs throughout government.

2) The Government ‘App store’

A Government Application store will be developed to enable sharing and reuse of business applications, services and components across the public sector.

The strategy envisages reuse of a range of ICT services becoming the norm, with anticipated savings of over £500m per annum by 2020:

The net effect will be to increase visibility of software already owned by the public sector so that other public sector bodies, and those bidding for public sector work, can see what’s available at no basic cost. Re-use is, in principle, already accepted as the preferred delivery approach across the public sector. However in most cases today, it is easier to do a fresh procurement.

The G-AS will provide automated electronic support for the applications procurement lifecycle and reduce the overhead costs of reuse of applications.

The scope for savings by 2020 runs here into many hundreds of millions of pounds given that it is not uncommon for large government organisations each to have between 300 and 1,000 applications in its portfolio; the opportunity is to reduce this to the order of 1,000 business services for the entire public sector.

An example of this is already up at running at GSA’s App store. It was setup earlier this year as a means of reducing the cost of IT infrastructure by utilising commercially available software. It provides access to Business, Productivity and Social media applications that have been vetted by GSA, and for which there are government agreements. Cloud IT services are expected to be added to the site soon. Over time it is expected to become a one-stop shopping site for commercial technology and services. While it’s still in an early stage, it does provide an insight into how government procurement could be rationalized and streamlined.

The Strategy notes how the ‘average procurement of an ICT services contract takes 77 weeks.’ Reducing this lead time, has the opportunity to produce significant savings, which increasing the adoption of innovative services within government.

3) Greater emphasis on Open Source

The ICT strategy explains the limitations with commercial off the shelf software:

COTS software uses proprietary code and cannot easily be reused across the public sector – reducing value for money, flexibility and agility. Importantly, this also impacts our opportunity to reduce risks to service delivery.

As part of a plan to increase the use of open source across the public sector the Open Source, Open Standards and Reuse Strategy was published earlier this year. It states:

that Government will actively and fairly consider open source solutions alongside proprietary ones in making procurement decisions. In addition, Government will, wherever possible, avoid becoming locked in to proprietary software. In particular it will take exit, re-bid and rebuild costs into account in procurement decisions and will require those proposing proprietary software to specify how exit would be achieved.

The ICT strategy seeks to build capability within the public sector to increase the amount of open source code and software in use and to make it available for reuse elsewhere. There is already many examples of open source software in use in government e.g WordPress use at 10 Downing St and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Along with this RedHat ranks the UK 7th in its government open source activity.

Local Government also expects to increase it’s use of open source software significantly over the coming years. Nevertheless, the use of open source is not a panacea. The strategy notes many widespread barriers to the adoption of open source, but highlights how the establishment of the CIO Council and other initiatives are helping to increase it’s reach and acceptance.

The development of open source communities, and EU policy and initiatives (such as the Open Source Observatory and Repository) should help with open source adoption. However, particular initiatives e.g. the White House move to Drupal, can serve as a catalyst to embedding trust and acceptance of open source applications. Bold moves such as this are needed to drive adoption to where it can effect substantial change in government IT budgets and cultures.

Other strands of activity expected to create significant savings include:

  • Data center consolidation strategy – with development of 10-12 highly resilient strategic data centers  implemented to common standards saving £300m a year and cutting power consumption by 75%
  • Common desktop strategy – will involve 80% of government PCs using a shared utility service by 2015 potentially yielding savings of £400 per year

Make IT Better

The Conservative opposition party has criticized the ICT Strategy for lacking ambition and for failing to consult with the public:

We think there’s a better way. Not only is it possible to develop a more ambitious, cost-effective and transformative vision for government IT, but we believe that it’s also possible to pursue a completely different approach to making policy. Rather than the traditional closed approach to policy making that this report typifies, we want to throw open the process and allow people to contribute their ideas on how policy should be designed. In the post-bureaucratic age, we believe that crowdsourcing and collaborative design can help us to make better policies – and we think this approach should begin now.

As part of this they’ve setup a website called Make IT Better, which allows the public to post comments and suggestions on the leaked report. They have split up the report into different sections and have already received hundreds of comments relating to different areas of the strategy.

While I don’t necessarily agree with all the criticism of the report, there are a few areas in which I feel it falls short. My primary concern is around the lack of transparency and openness in relation to IT projects, contracts and spending.

Waiting for US Style IT openness

The Conservatives claim that since 1997, Labour ministers have spent approximately £100 billion on IT projects. They cite a study, however, that concludes 70% of recent IT projects have failed. This equates to ‘tens of billions of pounds wasted on systems ranging from the calamitous £20 billion NHS supercomputer to the poorly managed Home Office probation service IT system.’

In relation to IT project control and governance the strategy claims:

Once that strengthened management [of the Gateway review process] is established, by 2020, we will follow the lead of the Office of Management and Budget and public sector CIO community in the USA by publicising the objectives and progress of our major projects, including naming the leaders and the results of all external assurance reviews.

The Gateway review process will be strengthened and KPIs will be developed to ‘ensure departments continually test their projects for compliance through their internal portfolio, programme and project governance.’

There is, however, no mention of making the results of these reviews open to the public. Tony Collins notes how this reveals ‘the UK government is as enthusiastic about openness on IT projects as it would be to a corporate visit to the dentist.’ It has taken years for FOI requests to reveal details of these reviews. Instead, these results should be published online, allowing the public visibility of the status of major IT projects.

The strategy appears to reference the Federal IT Dashboard, but suggests the UK will not have such a service until 2020. This is a real disappointment as transparency in this area could serve to increase trust and accountability of the annual £16bn government technology budget.

Openness and citizen participation

The Conservatives have compared the leaked strategy with their own plans to break up large IT projects into smaller components and encourage more use of open source software. They claim this would end the government’s reliance on a handful of large suppliers (they’ve called for a moratorium on the £100 billion of government IT contracts.)

They outline three main principles in relation to IT policy:

  • Big is not always better – increase the proportion of IT budgets spent with innovative young companies
  • Openness – increase the use of standard data formats and open source. They’ve also claimed they’ll publish online all items of government expenditure over £25,000 – hence spending on IT projects could be analysed in a similar vein to how Recovery.gov/USASpending.gov analyzes spending
  • Empowering citizens – opening up government data for others to build on e.g. through releasing data through services such as data.gov.uk (expected to be released in beta this month)

While aspects of these principles are contained within the strategy e.g. the release of government data, the Strategic principles of Better, Greener, Cheaper lack inspiration. The concepts of a government cloud and App store have been mooted since June, and can been seen as just a natural extension of current IT trends. For example, if a citizen App store was announced e.g. such as DataSF or appstore.dc.gov, that would be a real innovation.

The commentary and debate already live on MakeITBetter reflect the desire of many to contribute to this strategy. The Conservatives have taken the lead in setting up a website to crowdsource comments on the strategy. They’re using this as a guide to frame the party’s response when it’s officially released. The government would have been wise to provide the public with the opportunity to comment on the strategy as it was being developed, or at least before the final report was released (similar to the Power of Information Taskforce report).

Maybe the one interesting thing to come from the leak of the report is crowdsourcing has now become a political topic, with parties seeking to be the first to ask the public for their views on policy matters. It’ll be interested to observe whether the site will attract a partisan crowd or whether it’s produce substantial debate on the policies themselves. The recognition of citizen engagement as a tool for framing policy may yet be the most important principle overlooked by this ICT strategy.

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