« "Multiracial Britain is a success but immigration is too high" | Main | Ken Clarke is wrong to oppose Tory policy on marriage »


Great innovation from Osborne to seek this kind of feedback!

Daft. This would effectively put on end to trying to modernise the public sector especially the NHS.
The Conservative Party are becoming the modern eqvailient of The Luddiets!!!

I don't doubt that IT procurement processes can be improved, and it is great that the Conservatives are looking at this issue. At the TaxPayers' Alliance, we looked at big government projects in July 2007. Our review of over 300 major capital procurement schemes suggested that they overrun on average (including those that come in under budget) by a third. Our analysis was that the causes of this are generally a failure to properly specify what is wanted from a project before the project begins, underestimating the cost of the project in order to get it approved and paying over the odds in order to solve the problems these initial errors create further down the line.

Our report, with extensive examples from recent years, can be found here:

I think the two key commitments here risk becoming hostages to fortune:

Common data standards - this would almost certainly be the right idea if we were starting from zero. Unfortunately, the challenge will be making an effective transition to common standards. Trying to replace a series of incompatible, local solutions with a common standard is largely the reason why the NHS NPfIT is so massive, and such a mess.

Limit projects to £100 million - the simplicity of this idea is appealing and as a general rule it seems a good one. Such a rule might run into trouble, though, with certain schemes in departments like the DWP that are massive and don't have subdivisions that can handle smaller versions of a big project, like the NHS does. An unexpected project, bigger than £100 million, could easily become an embarassing 'U-turn'.

It seems plausible that improving IT procurement is partly a Civil Service reform task. Just as generalist civil servants aren't really equipped to be Finance Directors, they also will struggle with major procurement work. Too often a simple mechanism like fixed price contracts will be adopted because it offers an easy answer, even though they don't solve the problem as contractors simply drop out of the project as they have with the NHS NPfIT.

Another important step could be to ensure that there is greater clarity about who is in charge of these projects. And, make sure it is someone senior. Ministerial enthusiasm for a major project will rarely last and it needs to avoid being shuffled off to an agency or otherwise ditched to rack up costs in the long grass.

Matthew Sinclair
Research Director
The TaxPayers' Alliance

As an IT project manager who has worked in central government I can agree. Most of the problems come from the governments failure to adhere to its own standards (PRINCE II, ITIL, OGC to mention a few) and from project boards failure to question changes to scope in the light of obvious failures in the project's delivery.

As a general principle, should a project go into the discrectionary zone in terms of scope, time or cost, then the board should be reviewing its business case and applying for more money before it proceeds.

Caps are a must in order to put affordability above other considerations.

Affordability, living within our means, prudent judgement based on budgets, with enough flexibility for higher decisions to be made in exceptional circumstances, is what we should all be about including government. Get the country back into the black if at all possible.

Decent project / programme mamangement with proper governace structures would be welcome as well

My understanding is that the Australian Govt has blazed a trail here, well delivering Govt Services across such vast distances required a new approach. Setting some Tory IT experts about this might give a better handle on what inter-operability there is. Like most major infrastructure projects, majority of cost is upfront, but if you are using "Ford" connectors, may not be the big shock.

Caps won't solve the problem, nearly all the problems the government have come down to terrible, catastrophic software design and development practices.
In that from what I can see they don't do them properly. Lack of defined process with clear phases, no clear sets of requirements that are well designed in the early states. There has to be constant validation, testing, proofs.
Encapsulate encapsulate and de-couple, a mantra that has been ignored for these "super systems". However IT is one of the areas in that you really do have to hire good quality people to do the work.

As an IT professional who has worked on a number of sucessful (and no unsucessful) public sector projects, I say top marks for George.

Too many eggs are put in too few baskets.

The government needs simple clear standards (not the stupid convoluted standards that it currently loves), and can then have small modular developments to link together - from multiple suppliers if necessary.

And (despite my free-market beliefs) small UK suppliers should tend to get preference as they have greater commitment to the UK - just see how foreign companies mess up and just dissapear...

As an aim then it makes sense, although placing an actual arbitrary cap on things is just like having a target.
It will either be aimed for, or people will try and find ways around it (on principal) or it may be better to spend 101million at the start rather than 909million annual maintainance.
I'm being picky though, the gist of his proposal is good.

Fantastic idea - should have been utilised a long time ago.

Platforms like Linux are far more stable than the Microsoft alternatives, with the added bonus of them being Open Source and hence, if not free, much cheaper.

The other plus is that Open Source, by its very nature, can be manipulated to cater for very different jobs and as a result, there would be better, more specialist systems availiable for our hospitals, etc.

Ironically, many of the large servers companies use are already run on Linux based software and it is only the front-end that uses Microsoft.

Bill Gates will be sad, though... but George, good on ya!

"..I want to hear what ConservativeHome readers think about the proposals".

After all my criticisms of George Osborne in the past, I heartily applaud his willingness to listen to us and also his approach to this issue which has so frequently hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons in the recent past.

* smaller modular units; yes, as long as they are compatible.
* Labour has no idea about security of information. Procedures for the encryption of confidential information and access to it must be as tightly controlled as it would be in any leading accountancy firm.
* systems must be worked out together with users. The NHS is terrible for patients who do not use their first names.

I would just be careful, Open IT Procurement Process does not equal Open Source. And you can have all the Open Source you like, if you don't know how to use it, it still won't work and will cost you more in time than money.
Being able to define what you you want and really need and then finding a solution that enables you to meet that is more important than finding a solution to which you adapt your needs and wants.

Well said Matthew Sinclair.

Will Osborne actually listen to what is said? The record on listening to members under David Cameron hasnt exactly been a key aspect of the Party...

A cap is a very stupid mechanism.

If something needs doing it must be done. The costs must be kept as low as possible while maintaining proper quality.

If something does not need doing, dont do it.

Putting a "cap" in place is pointless. Lets just massively reduce costs by spending wisely and not wasting. Forget abritrary 'top' figures, and just slash away the chaff.


Speaking as someone in the private sector that is involved in Government IT work especially at the tender stage. I feel fairly qualified to speak on this topic mainly as so much guff is written in the tabloids.

Firstly, existing government IT projects.

There are many successful government IT systems, Flood Warnings index supplies vital information to get the emergency services up to speed, gets the logistic response mobilised quickly and keeps the public informed.

There are also common services available to all government departments and the public via Government Gateway which has been a very understated success.

Most of the successful IT programmes do have a 'pattern' to their success, they are small (relatively speaking) in cost, well defined in terms of what they want (the requirements) and have clear and unambiguous sponsorship from a central government 'customer'

I could write for pages on the shortcoming on CfH and other NHS IT projects.

For a start, NHS went through the laborious task of a common data standard, it took a very long time and cost a small fortune but it is there.

In short, the key reason for failure of NHS IT is three-fold.

1. An utterly crazy customer organisation, the NHS (through the Department of Health) was incapable of organising itself to adopt the new software without a myriad of prime implementators, champions, secondaries ad nauseam.

It caused confusion and a lack of clear objectives or a clear customer organisation has led to two of the four major services companies pulling out.

2. The software, the 'customer' all too often specified the software. This is totally bad practice as in the really difficult areas (Choose and book) the NHS's requirement is so totally alien to products out there it would have far more cost effective to write new software from scratch.

3. The requirements. Government is notorious difficult to deal with due to the appalling slow pace of decision making.

Usually requirements are poorly defined and require the supplier spending thousands of man-days of work (and cost) to correct and validate them. Also, they change often and usually at a late stage which is very expensive.

You wouldn't commission a bespoke suit and just as the buttons are being sown on, change the fabric?

Government does that to IT often.

The cost of rework is eye-watering.

As to the recommendations in this report, they are laudable. However there are some big reasons why this may prove difficult.

Open source software. It works on the 80:20 principle. 80% of the functionality for 20% of the cost. Whilst the product is free, the support is not.

Basic procurement rules are that a supplier of services has to be of a certain size to offer a credible service and not go bust.

Open source software still requires support and that will still require a tie-in into a lengthy support contract to allow the supplier to make a return.

One big problem with open source software is security accreditation. Because open source is 'open source', the make-up of the software is available in the public domain.

For sensitive areas, it is difficult to accredit open source software for this sole reason as to have the working of the code freely available to anyone in the world, that presents a risk. Many areas of government IT are very sensitive in terms of the Official Secrets Act and Data Protection Act.

As such, accrediting open source software is very difficult, usually the cost of doing it is more than used vended products that are immediately accredited.

If the government want to save money on IT, I can suggest some very simple and effective measure that would save billions.

1. Establish an 'Office for Information Technology Best Practice.'

Remove all the other governmental bodies, I'd guess hundreds of millions of pounds saved. Every government department has its own procurement policy and standards, abolish the lot.

This organisation cites how IT programmes are delivered, which development method will be used, what quality management will be applied, etc, etc, etc...

These are the fundamental practices that any IT company worth their salt could do.

The government chooses one standard per practice. No ifs no buts. There are many de-facto standards and it would not be difficult to choose the industry leading practices.

Much of the cost of developing these solutions is actually having to 'translate' one companies document into the language of another company or into the language of the government.

One organisation, this would drive down the cost of doing business to the supplier.

2. One government organisation for IT procurement.

Again, to remove the duplication, waste and also sheer time delays in getting the work done. This department will conform to the Office of Best practice and acts as enforcer to the suppliers.

Share the risk.

If the onus of risk was equally borne by government and the supplier this may negate the bad behaviours. If government did not conform to its side of the bargain (contractual non-compliance) or the supplier, then the addition cost is borne equally.

It is not beyond the wit of man to measure this and then contractuall sort this out. By making it more a partnership, the ends should always justify the means.

3. The government department defines their requirement to a standard recognised by a government best practice.

Now this is GCSE computer science stuff. Define your requirements, there are endless best practices to grade the quality of requirements. Believe it or not many government department actually contracts this out!

They cannot actually define the requirement. I am aware of several large tenders (in excess of £400m) where a third-party had to come in to help define the requirement.

If the civil service cannot define the business they are - what chance do you think they have of delivering the solution?

4. Justify the business case.

This is the basics of IT systems development, any IT system must actually show a return on investment.

That's what IT is - an investment.

In the private sector, IT is there to lower costs, improve productivity, eliminate waste and maximise revenues and profit.

Look at ID Cards, the business case has changed many times, first it was an anti-terror business case, now anti-fraud and now it's a way to streamline doing government business and a means to validate who you are. It's a joke.

If it has no business case, it is not worthy of consideration.

Get these right and what technology to use is pretty much irrelevant.

Yes, open source has a role to play but to boil it down into one very simple surmise.

Government needs to know what it wants, needs to know how to articulate what it wants, it needs to understand how to deliver it, it needs to standardise and streamline its procurement, it needs to undertake IT systems development as a partnership.

My favorite comment on on NPfIT:

"Richard Granger, the tough 42-year-old management consultant who runs the government's Connecting for Health project, initially failed his computer studies course at Bristol University - and took a year off as a result. He was only allowed to resit the exam after she appealed on his behalf, and he went on to gain a 2:2 in geology." And apparently his mum was well sorry about that mistake

What I do not find funny in Mike Thomas' comments is the statement
"They (The Govt Depts) cannot actually define the requirement. I am aware of several large tenders (in excess of £400m) where a third-party had to come in to help define the requirement." (For whose benefit??)
If you don't know where you are or what you want, how can you get it? Getting this right is the most important part of any project. The rest as Mike says, flows naturally enough.

So a good Tory starting point would be reskilling the Civil Service , from the sounds of it.

And you can have all the Open Source you like, if you don't know how to use it, it still won't work and will cost you more in time than money.

Yes, open source probably does cost a bit more to operate, but it still normally works out cheaper overall and better (as it can be customised for your needs etc and runs on less hardware)
This means that the money you do spend can go to the UK IT experts and not the american software companies and less to the irish/chinese computer manufacturers, less to the supposedly evil power companies.

One thing I've learned in a long IT career is to read the small print and not react on the basis of minimal information.

I will not wave my credentials around as other have done, except to say that I was once described by a disguntled civil servant, who was concerned that an IT system would replace his job, that I was one of 'Thatcher's hitmen'.

What is disclosed here are three vague high level broad brush proposals recommended by someone who is an academic and management consultant and is sponsored by someone who would be the most important CFO in the country.

As an IT practitioner of many years, such a combination fills me with trepidation not because I doubt their competence in their fields but the fact that these groups have little insight into what makes effective IT provision. Add an expert 'Project Manager' to the mix and you would almost certainly have a recipe for yet another IT disaster.

However, cynicism aside, I will not pre-judge these recommendations, although I am sceptical, until I see the full proposal and all the recommendations. So rather than this snippet perhaps, Mr Osborne might make all the recommendations and the supporting reports justifying these Government use of Technology proposals available.

Other than that, I will not comment on the many posts here. Given that they are commenting on three pieces of a very complex many pieced jigsaw they barely stand up to scrutiny.

That said I would say to Jonathan Isaby where he says:

Anything to put an end to the spiralling costs of exercises such as the NHS supercomputer, the CSA IT system and the probbation service computer system must surely be welcome.

Don't deceive yourself. These proposals will unlikely achieve this. There is a only one simple and effective way to do what you want. Scrap those projects, write off the wasted capital and sack the morons who conceived them! Any further pursuance of these projects will inherently cost the taxpayer a fortune. My understanding is that both are so big they are unmanageable but, there again when has the current Government's centralisation not led to this?

Anyway, hopefully Mr Osborne will be good enough to provide some further clarity to what seem somewhat random, disjointed and incoherent and incomplete proposals at present. In that way he might get some considered opinions. That is if he wants them.

Interesting ideas, and the only way is up when it comes to Goverments and IT!

As an IT professional I think that the "cap" idea is the correct way to go.

In all IT projects small, tightly focused projects succeed far more often than the enormous unweildy "supertanker" projects so beloved of this government.

This cap should change the approach to IT. For example in the NHS IT system, now that the common data format has been decided, another project could define and implement interfaces for data interchange and code libraries to implement the interfaces. These common libraries could then be distributed to all interested parties. Individual authorities could then run their own small projects using the common interface libraries to ensure viable data exchange.

All of a sudden you have a serious of small manageable projects being run to meet local objectives and still able to access services and exchange data on a national basis.

George Osbourne - if you read this then be assured - your "cap" scheme is the way to go. It is not the whole solution, but it definitely a move in the correct direction.

This Government has made a complete mess of almost every IT project - over budget, late, not up to specification - and even Stone admitted it last week.

PS What is a Luddiet?

It is clear - even just from the responses here - that good IT projects are art not science.

That is why a cap is a good principle. There is always risk, and that risk cannot be sensibly measured - so never put your shirt on anything.

Just like capitalism and evolution, the process must recognise that there will be losers/failures the 'trick' is in recognising that those losers/failures are required as part of the process, but shouldn't consume resources for a moment longer than necessary.

Whilst he's on saving money we don't have and cutting borrowing we can't afford, and preventing taxes we don't like which make us poorer. Could he have a look at road cameras, and coppers in top of the range vehicles, check why we need 7 sets of traffic lights along every major road or roundabout, and other ludicrous unaffordable items please, and whilst he's at it could he also ask someone to have a look to make street lighting come on only when activated by passing pedestrians or drivers rather than burning up the national grid all night throughout the land when there's not a soul in sight please?

I'd love to know what all this is costing us but I'd sooner know what we've saved in money as well as for the environment.

William Blake,

On the other side of the fence, the private sector has amongst its ranks plenty of people that see government IT as a secure gravy train to sit there and rubbish any ideas to progress and change without offering any ideas of their own.

Nothing more than bed-blockers and 'have to see all the detail'.

The problem is not only is 'seeing all the detail' is immensely expensive, it's also not at all realistic. Such micro-managed decision making smacks of people in charge who are way out of their depth and are uncomfortable with risk and uncertainty.

I would add that there are many chancers in private sector IT, people that really should not be there at all.

Personally, I think Jack Welch dealt with those people the right way at GE.

I would be far more worried if any CFO or CTO had gone into the minutiae because they are not looking at what is coming over the horizon, they are over controlling and only generate complete inertia.

Lastly, good IT projects are NOT art, they are constructed and created through sound engineering principles.

The reason why open source has been so immensely successful is:

1. They have adopted engineering concepts and techniques from car manufacture. The Agile movement has pretty much lifted Toyota's concepts of lean manufacture and lean product development.

They are not alone, change management processes like Six Sigma have done exactly the same.

Personally, if I had Osborne's ear for five minutes on Government IT I would be pushing this lean engineering approach heavily.

2. Open source has been encouraged by the main software vendors who have released some of their IPR into the public domain.

IBM donated a development method and development environment tools, so much so, Ivar Jacobsen has come out of retirement.

Oracle donated a limited functionality functionality database product.

Sun, a programming language and all the kits to make the software work correctly.

There are many other firms, VC funded that publish free software but then sell support.

Of a software product's lifetime, 20% of the total cost is developing the product, 80% is maintaining it and supporting it. All open source does is develop it for free and then recover that cost over the lifetime of its support.

Open source is not free, it merely removes a large component of the up-front cost in software licenses. It actually makes the possibility of a business case being valid for computerisation more likely for this reason.

2. The software development itself is executed using strict change control procedures and tools not unlike a car plant. Poor quality and bad code simply does not make it into the product, there is no Friday-afternoon code.

3. The quality management process is fully peer-reviewed, utterly transparent and also partially automated. Again, the method is to fix faults as they happen rather than at the end of writing all the code; exactly in the same way Japanese manufacturing fix faults on the production line.

4. The way of working is incredibly collaborative and a flatter non-hierarchical organisation. It is a far more empowered structure, this is where the creativity and best ideas comes from, not from on top but on the production line.

A great example of (4) in practice in the open-source world is Wikipedia.

@Mike Thomas - good points and well made. As well as Wikipedia look at other open source successes such as Firefox and the Apache webserver which has the largest single share of the webserver market.

In case anyone on here needs further convincing this very website is running on Apache and is proxied via Squid so you are using at least two open source solutions right now.

Good, isn't it


---- Headers for conservativehome.blogs.com ----

Date: Wed, 28 Jan 2009 10:06:56 GMT
Server: Apache
X-Perlbal: oak-tp-squid002
X-PhApp: oak-tp-web038
X-Webserver: oak-tp-web038
Vary: cookie
Content-Length: 108055
Content-Type: text/html; charset=utf-8
Age: 276
X-Cache: HIT from oak-tp-squid002.sixapart.net
X-Cache-Lookup: HIT from oak-tp-squid002.sixapart.net:3129
Via: 1.0 oak-tp-squid002.sixapart.net:3129 (squid/2.6.STABLE18)
Connection: keep-alive

200 OK

Incidentally, both LabourList and Spectator's coffeehouse are both hosted on Apache and both run on PHP.

Open source is everywhere already - even Derek Draper can use it..

We need to learn how to get value for money for the UK. It's a national scandal that we do not have our own operating system and a National disaster that in many case’s we have bought an insecure OS from American’s. We should charge the BBC with developing our own OS and in the meantime we should move as much of our national IT infrastructure to systems based on UNIX. Without a doubt, Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and Cardiff Universities (to name just a few) could with the BBC develop a sound and secure backbone for our computing needs. Rather than capping monies spent on worthless American junk, we should invest in a British system that we can then sell over sea’s. So George I suggest we start to back Britain and British all over again, because British is best.

Some excellent comments on this post so far, including that of Mike Thomas, but I just wanted to call attention to one of the points that he made:


One big problem with open source software is security accreditation. Because open source is 'open source', the make-up of the software is available in the public domain.

For sensitive areas, it is difficult to accredit open source software for this sole reason as to have the working of the code freely available to anyone in the world, that presents a risk. Many areas of government IT are very sensitive in terms of the Official Secrets Act and Data Protection Act.


The public nature of open source software shouldn't be seen as a threat to data security, because a system that relies upon security through obscurity - the idea that people can't break into it because they won't be able to figure out how it works, and no information is available - is doomed to fail anyway. The idea simply doesn't work, not least because unlike with open source software it's impossible for independent observers to inspect the code and highlight bugs, which usually are the leading cause of insecurity.

Much better to use an open source system that is secure because so many people have been able to test it out, including deep encryption for all sensitive data.

"Much better to use an open source system that is secure because so many people have been able to test it out, including deep encryption for all sensitive data."

Even better in my book would be to have our very own National OS for the most sensitive areas. Of course we would have to be compatible with the rest of the IT industry and so using some open source packages makes good economic sense.I recall just how good the Acorn-BBC machines of the 80's were and there is little doubt in my mind that we could develope a ground breaking OS if we put a little money in the direction of out top universities. One thing I think we both agree on is that there is nothing worse than using software from America that we have no way of knowing how it works ( at a code level) and which has a reputation for being insecure and buggy. I'll not name names but I am certain we all know who's software I am talking about.

Another fine initiative from George Osborne! Clearly, Jack Stone has not read the post properly, or he would have realised the reasons behind this latest proposal.

Labour have proved incapable of implementing new technology, or safeguarding existing sources of data satisfactorily.

From the BBC
"instead of awarding long-term contracts to large IT companies they could open up the procurement process to smaller firms using "open source" software."
I am telling you this conflating two issues, and making what is a serious issue into one that makes the Tories look amateurish and bad.
Open Procurement means breaking out of the big consultancies. To do this, you need to breaks down a big project into sub-projects, and each sub-project can go to "small innovative" firms rather than the Anderson's, KPMG, Coopers etc.
A common data standard means that you define messaging interfaces between systems. Dept A does its thing the way it likes and outputs to, these days, a Bizdex XML format of an object, that can be consumed by another system doing its thing on its Operating Infrastructure of OS and generic or bespoke applications. A client is an object, a tax claim is an object. I am telling you look to the Australians.
Open source is a mechanism by which you deliver your thoughts and needs. If you work 80:20, this works if you only require 80, if you need more than adaptation has to happen. Define your requirements and then find the solution, not the other way round.
It is a serious topic, but how the BBC has taken it makes the Tories look amateurish. I am sure it can be turned round to break the complexity of the issues into single strands, and address each strand individually, and then bring the 3 into a coherent picture, rather than conflating them as an jumble as at present.

Mike Thomas:

Great techie advert! However, I would highlight one point you make.

Of a software product's lifetime, 20% of the total cost is developing the product, 80% is maintaining it and supporting it. All open source does is develop it for free and then recover that cost over the lifetime of its support.

Open source is not free, it merely removes a large component of the up-front cost in software licenses. It actually makes the possibility of a business case being valid for computerisation more likely for this reason.

So what your saying is that it hides the total cost of ownership from the taxpayer in a sort of 'buy now pay later way'. Isn't that what we are criticising Gordon Brown for ?

Oh and while we are at it, a couple of other points. Computer implementations are not 'an investment'. Investments provide profit. The value of computer equipment declines at a rapid rate (due to the pace of technological advancement and the resultant early obsolescence of previous iterations of technology). At best they provide operational cost savings and I am sceptical about the figures given resulting in a net saving of taxpayers money of anything close to the amount specified or a significant improvement in the services provided by the public sector to the public as a result (the other justification).

As for wikipedia are they not having to recruit sub-editors because the accuracy of the information published is at question with the associated additional costs?

Quality control shish! Ever heard of GIGO (garbage in, garbage out!)

The comments to this entry are closed.



ConHome on Twitter

    follow me on Twitter

    Conservative blogs

    Today's public spending saving

    New on other blogs

    • Receive our daily email
      Enter your details below:

    • Tracker 2
    • Extreme Tracker