Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has hit back at claims that Cabinet Office policy was responsible for recent IT problems at the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) and Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS).
The two departments share IT and were the first in Whitehall to move to shorter contracts with several suppliers. Since the transition in May the departments have experienced various IT problems, which their ministers ascribed to the Cabinet Office’s policy of using more SMEs and shorter contracts.
However, Maude said that the departments’ procurement exercise behind the transition had been inadequate.
He told ComputerworldUK: “It was not as successful as it should have been. There will always be problems in a transition, but that wasn’t done as well as it should have been done. We think in some respects part of it were over-specified, which limited the range of suppliers who could bid effectively for it.”
Maude advised that departments moving away from big, monolithic IT contracts should seek advice from the Cabinet Office to ensure they don’t fall into the same trap.
He said: “It’s really important that the line departments properly plug into the expertise there is at the centre and don’t seek to do it all themselves.”
Government CTO Liam Maxwell agreed that issues with the procurement were at the root of the problems in BIS and DECC.
Speaking to ComputerworldUK, Maxwell said: “the way that DECC and BIS procured their services was not fully in line with the government's strategy, specifically the technology code of practice".
He also said that there had been particular issues with service integration at the departments, which is provided by Canadian multinational CGI.
Business secretary Vince Cable and Energy and Climate Change secretary Ed Davey were reported to have complained to David Cameron at a Cabinet meeting last month about IT problems at their departments.
The two departments share their IT systems, which were previously provided by Fujitsu under a 15-year deal worth £19 million a year.
The ministers said that the IT procurement policy led by Maude was responsible for the issues, which included lost data, slow connections, frozen screens and intermittent e-mail, according to the Financial Times.
In particular the policy of using more SMEs was singled out for criticism by Cable, though he did not identify any specific SME as being responsible for the IT glitches.
When contacted by ComputerworldUK, BIS explained that it uses a mix of suppliers including Fujitsu, FCO Services, Level 3 and a number of smaller firms including Fivium, Automated Intelligence, Zaizi and Skyscape.
The departments’ service integrator CGI declined to comment on the transition issues when contacted by ComputerworldUK but highlighted that it is just one of a number of new tower suppliers within the contract.
A BIS spokesperson said: "The new IT system replaces 15-year-old technology. It will allow BIS to fully exploit new and emerging technology. It will also reduce IT running costs by 40 percent over five years.
“We have experienced some problems as a result of moving over to a new system. We are working hard to resolve them as quickly as possible and to minimise disruption. Staff throughout the department are continuing to deliver services to business and other stakeholders.”
Four ‘red lines’
In order to avoid the sorts of problems experienced by BIS and DECC, Maude advised that Whitehall departments follow the four rules - or ‘red lines’ - for IT contracts published by the Cabinet Office at the start of the year.
He said: “Our four red lines really matter. There’s a presumption against any IT contract with a lifetime value of more than £100 million. Not to say never, but you need to make a strong case for it. Also we want disaggregation, no extensions. At a time when costs in IT are tumbling, it will rarely make sense to extend a contract. You should always be re-competing and opening it up.
“There should be no circumstances where the systems integrator is also a service provider because that way we lose transparency, we lose the visibility into what we’re buying. And no hosting contract should last over two years. At a time when the cost of hosting is halving every 18 months, why would you lock yourself into long-term contracts?”
Maude added: “I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that those are the wrong principles to apply - they are quite radical, and they will make a big difference over time. We have a load of big SI contracts which come to an end over the next two years, and we need to ensure that we transition to the new world successfully.”
Single technology platform for government
Maude said that he would like to see a single common technology platform across government in order to avoid the problems that come from having disjointed, non-interoperable systems.
He said: “I think what we can’t have any longer is a sense that - and we’ve just about put a halt to this - that every part of government goes off and does its own thing, because that way you end up with a whole load of non-interconnecting, non-interoperable systems that cause us massive problems.
“We should have a common technology platform across government. If you’re working as a civil servant, unless you’re doing something absolutely mission specific in a frontline role, they should be able to go anywhere with their own end user device, plug into the same platform wherever they go, access the same things - obviously with proper security. But we’re nowhere near that yet.”
Maxwell claimed that the Cabinet Office’s project to replace its existing IT contract with Fujitsu, which is due to end in January 2015, will demonstrate the feasibility of a ‘common technology’ approach across government.
He said: “The Cabinet Office technology transformation is the way of showing that. Principally what we’re also not doing is turning around and saying to everybody ‘you must do exactly the same thing’.
“But people are seeing that by employing common standards, a common technology platform just makes sense for them. Essentially it’s another example of that ‘for you, with you, by you’ approach that we want them to adopt.”