The UK government's technology shopping catalogue G-Cloud is creeping through the corridors of power - but a wave of outsourcing decisions has sapped Whitehall’s ability to set the nation's tech strategy, and the entrenched interests of incumbent IT suppliers stand in its way.
That’s the takeaway from outgoing G-Cloud director Chris Chant, who this week signs off from the programme he’s overseen for the past 18 months.
In presenting at the Socitm spring conference in London on Wednesday and speaking to The Reg afterwards, Chant outlined the challenges ahead for G-Cloud and its achievements during his brief time at the helm. The programme will now be led by Home Office IT head Denise McDonagh.
G-Cloud is supposed to break the grip big tech companies have on the government by making it easier for small biz to supply IT services to the public sector – 80 per cent of IT contracts are controlled by an "oligopoly" of just six companies, according to government figures. Central to G-Cloud is the Cloudstore, a catalogue of 280 IT suppliers and 1,700 services.
Chant reckoned Cloudstore has drawn 8,000 visits and 5,500 unique page impressions in the last month, leading to 350 inquiries and 30 purchases ranging in value from “a few hundred pounds” to more than £1m. Interest has come from local authorities, health service organisations, and large departments including the Department for Works and Pensions.
G-Cloud has been a hit with tech companies: the goal was 50 services on Cloudstore by the end of 2012 – instead there are 34 times that target listed online. Version two of the G-Cloud is due in the first two weeks of May, and Chant reckons a similar number of tech companies will be listed. And among them are expected to be Amazon and Salesforce, companies synonymous with cloud systems unlike many of the IT suppliers on Cloudstore. Version 2.0 of the store will introduce the ability to rate suppliers’ services, we’re told.
Existing IT contracts have been reworked as a result of G-Cloud. Chant said central government has stepped in to “help manage” some large projects for the remainder of their time, clawing back £800m in the process. Also it’s now possible for government buyers to discuss contracts - something forbidden in the past.
It’s a start, but the government’s a huge place so change comes slowly and the challenges to G-Cloud are human and cultural rather than technical.
The tech industry’s mania for outsourcing has had a damaging impact on the government’s ability to think strategically, Chant said. Outsourcing has eliminated a class of people who’d normally have set IT direction, and handed the responsibility to those supplying systems. Some big central government departments now need to recruit and train people capable of setting such strategy as these jobs have been sent out of house.
“For central government, skills have been lost – over the years some departments have outsourced their IT strategy. I find it difficult to image how anybody came to that decision. So those skills need to be replenished to help us work in this space,” Chant told The Reg.
Another problem, he reckons, is incumbent suppliers with vested interests: the responsibility of selecting the technology used in kit has been passed to these suppliers - thanks to outsourcing.
Chant didn’t go into details, but pointed to this discrepancy: some companies are selling services to government at a higher price and with longer contracts than their G-Cloud offerings. Surf through Cloudstore and you’ll find all of the familiar government computing blue bloods listed.
Whitehall wonks need to change the way they buy tech gear
Chant said another problem is cultural – that government IT buyers and their suppliers must change they way they’ve done business.
“It is a challenge,” Chant said. “You are used to doing something one particular way then someone comes along and says wash it away and do it differently. That’s happened to me dozens of times."
This is compounded by the fact strategy often changes in government, so people might be holding off perusing G-Cloud's wares because they reckon it'll be reorganised in the near future. Who can forget years of outsourcing being the new black or the now discredited public finance initiative to spread payments for big projects?
People will change, he said, but over time as existing IT contracts expire.
“It’s not some 20,000-person organisation to change - it’s a six-million-person organisation to change and that ain’t easy and that ain’t quick, so people will come to stuff at different times," Chant said. "This will be an ongoing process of education: they are used to managing a contract in a particular way and as that contract comes to and end they will to think about things differently and manage in a different way.”
The famously plain-speaking Chant, a long-running advocate for reform during his 30-plus years in government, urged civil servants to stand up to suppliers and “do the right thing”.
“You just have to say when stuff is shit and not sit there and let it happen,” he said, adding:
I’ve never had any criticism from people senior to me about what I’ve said and done. People need to believe in their own capabilities and view of things and say it as they see it. We are all users of this stuff, we see what goes on every day. We shouldn’t be frightened about 'who will think' or 'who will say what' or 'what will happen to me if I say it as it is'. That’s lesson we all need to learn.
“We need to work iteratively across policy and process as well as technology. It’s not about setting a path in IT for three years and define it in such a tight way when you know it’s going to change," Chant said. "We need to flex when things flex. Services we can’t see today will start to appear when there’s a demand for them."
He also indicated G-Cloud might become the default option for picking IT suppliers. Right now, it’s not mandatory for government users to purchase through the framework and so far there’s been a lot of early interest but low sales.
He was tightlipped on whether the government would eventually make G-Cloud and Cloudstore mandatory, but noted simply: “Increasingly as everybody has to get their IT approved centrally now and increasingly the question is being asked: Have you looked on G-Cloud and what is there on G-Cloud to do this?” ®