Conflicting views in Cabinet Office over IT-related reforms

Long before the general election officials at the Cabinet Office had been talking to Francis Maude and other potential ministers about IT-related reforms.By the time the Coalition formed, civil servants in the Cabinet Office had a good idea what...


Long before the general election officials at the Cabinet Office had been talking to Francis Maude and other potential ministers about IT-related reforms.

By the time the Coalition formed, civil servants in the Cabinet Office had a good idea what ministers would want. The Cabinet Office oversees the work of central departments in implementing spending cuts.

Now that Maude is a Cabinet Office minister his wish for radical reform is undiminished. He wants large cuts in the public sector's IT spend of about £17bn a year. He also wants the government's administration and business processes simplified, and the massive duplication of IT-related work, processes and procurement greatly reduced. 

But among civil servants within the Cabinet Office two factions are emerging: the Radicals and the Innately Cautious. 

The Radicals

The radicals  see much of the IT-related spend in central government and the wider public sector (councils, quangos, agencies) as wasteful. They say that most public sector organisations are doing essentially the same things but wrongly consider themselves unique and so unnecessarily buy their own IT and employ their own staff. Through control of the purse strings they could be compelled to simplify and standardize. And through subtly-enforced take-up of the G-Cloud, public sector organisations could avoid being locked into long-term contracts with poorly-delivering suppliers. 

The Radicals strongly welcome Maude's reformist zeal; and like Maude, they want SMEs to have 25% of government contracts [contracts, and not government business - SMEs could have 25% of government business and still be subcontractors to big IT companies whereas if they have 25% of government contracts their relationship is directly with government]. 

The Innately Cautious 

The Innately Cautious are reluctant to meddle with the major IT systems of government, particularly those that help collect tax and pay benefits. They advocate slow change and sympathise with the views of the big IT companies - the systems integrators - that advise against too much change too soon. They see a very limited role for the G-Cloud and want SMEs kept in their place, as subcontractors to the big suppliers.  

The Radicals view the Innately Cautious with deep suspicion. But the Radicals, like the former President Reagan, see the status quo as Latin for "the mess we're in". 

That said the Innately Cautious within the Efficiency and Reform Group are supported by civil servants in some of the central departments who don't want major change, and don't want to manage a multiplicity of SMEs. They'd rather manage a single prime contractor, even if that supplier charges excessively for IT system and contract changes. 

So which faction will win? It's worth remembering that the Radicals have the support of Maude and his political advisers. But will Maude and his team eventually bend to the will of the Innately Cautious?

The Cabinet Office's ban on its officials talking on matters related to government IT will affect mainly the Radicals. So perhaps the Innately Cautious, and their allies which are the big IT companies, are quietly gaining ground. 

There again Maude and his political advisers didn't know of the ban at the time it was imposed.

Will the Coalition’s plans for radical reform be watered down, under the influence of the major suppliers and systems integrators? 

It's possible. It is known that the major suppliers are fighting to keep things much as they are: with complexity, non-standardisation and high costs of IT changes the norm. In the interests of their shareholders, the systems integrators want big contracts. Indeed the share price of some of the big IT companies is much higher now than a year ago. 

Perhaps the real reason for the ban is that it would be inconsistent and embarrassing for the Coalition if Cabinet Office staff, in their public talks and interviews, continued to give the impression that radical changes are on the way when they’re not. 

It’s worth remembering that the Tories condemened the NPfIT until they got into power. Now the NPfIT remains largely unchanged


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