In defence of John Suffolk, G-Cloud and radical reform (2)

This is a continuation of  a blog piece from Friday 7 December 2010...John Suffolk [the outgoing government CIO] is also criticised for his passionate advocacy of G-Cloud. He has made it clear that G-Cloud isn’t a single...


This is a continuation of  a  blog piece from Friday 7 December 2010...

John Suffolk [the outgoing government CIO] is also criticised for his passionate advocacy of G-Cloud. He has made it clear that G-Cloud isn’t a single cloud or supplier but a shared infrastructure and common computer systems. The Crown pays per transaction, not for software licences and hardware. It avoids lock-in by big suppliers and lock-out of SMEs.

Mention G-Cloud to many in the IT industry and they’ll talk about security weaknesses. But about 95% of government work is unclassified. 

They’ll also talk about the threat of cloud suppliers taking down their systems under pressure from the US government or cyber attackers. This is a good objection to G-cloud and there are others: how will cloud services be audited? Who’ll be accountable for what they provide?  

I don’t have the answers. Perhaps the Cabinet Office doesn’t. That doesn't make G-Cloud a bad idea, though. Engineers regularly overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve major change.  

The West Coast railway line from London to Glasgow was replaced in its entirety at weekends while keeping open train services for hundreds of thousands of passengers during Monday to Friday. If that feat of logistics, engineering and precision could be achieved in a safety-critical environment - and many more feats of similar technical ambition are completed around the world every year - it cannot be beyond the wit of man to introduce G-Cloud.

 If you keep things as they are, you’re continuing to give the big IT suppliers a license to print money. Sometimes departments’ auditors don’t even know how many millions of pounds have been paid to the main IT supplier for minor changes to code or contracted services.

Has the Cabinet Office welcomed Suffolk’s outspokenness? No.

John Suffolk has wanted to end this unnecessary and unjustified drain on the public purse. For some in the civil service and particularly the big suppliers he has been off-message. The response of those at the top of the civil service to Suffolk’s talks at conferences - and similar talks by other reformers within the Cabinet Office - has been to ban them indefinitely on speaking publicly about matters to do with IT.

The ban silences reformers who include Andy Tait, Deputy Director, Data Centre Strategy, G-Cloud and Apps Store; David Pitchford, Executive Director of Major Projects, Efficiency and Reform Group, and Chris Chant Director of Government Cloud Programme. Which reinforces the fact that government, if nothing else, is a machine that has been self-engineered over decades to shield itself from major change. 

As John Stuart Mill said, bureaucracies if left to their own will do all they can to perpetuate themselves and expand while, in their working practices, will “sink into indolent routine, or, if they now and again desert that mill-horse round, will rush into some half-examined crudity which has struck the fancy of some leading member of the corps”. 

The sole check on these practices, and the only way the department can be kept up to a high standard, said Mill, is “watchful criticism”.

Now that Suffolk is leaving the Cabinet Office will anyone continue to point out that government has thousands of data centres it doesn’t need? 

You can add to the administration; you cannot take away. It’s becoming apparent that departments, agencies and councils will cut frontline services before they’ll change their working habits. The media, unfortunately, is an ally of the lobby for inertia. It will look to criticise the coalition for anything it gets wrong. Which is all the more reason to have a government CIO doing little else but fighting the inclination of bureaucracies to protect the status quo against all innovation.

Suffolk’s annual cost of about £250,000 is small compared to the benefits

The coalition could save about £250,000 a year on not replacing Suffolk. But £250,000 is not much when compared with the millions it’s costing taxpayers to employ hundreds, and possibly thousands, of press officers whose job specification is, unofficially, to wrap messages about government administration in layers of warm blankets.

A government CIO is important, therefore, as a senior figure in government who stands for reform, who campaigns against waste that may otherwise be accepted as an inevitability in any complex system. 

Without a radical reformist to lead IT-related change, the top civil servants who want a quiet life until they collect their knighthoods and pensions are more likely to see their ambitions fulfilled; and the big suppliers that enjoy good returns for disproportionately little effort will be left without too much challenge. 

So it's in the short-term interest of taxpayers that there continues to be a strong leader of  government IT; and though it will fight it radical change is in the short, medium and long-term interests of the bureaucracy.



"Recommended For You"

Will some IT suppliers be unwilling partners in Spending Review savings? Joe Harley expected to be new Government CIO