Cabinet Office Director of ICT futures Liam Maxwell’s recent predictions that future public sector ICT provision will be based on more flexible, short term ICT contracts for disaggregated services certainly captured the attention of the vendor and analyst community. This builds on the commitment to both outlined in last year’s Government ICT Strategy and Strategic Implementation plan. But beyond the headline statements, what does this actually mean for public sector ICT and procurement professionals, who will be expected to usher in this brave new world of cloud-based commodity services and open standards?
One of the stated objectives of the Efficiency and Reform Group has been to reduce the cost and complexity of public sector procurement. ICT procurement, in particular, has been identified as an area that has, in the past, been prone to time and cost overruns and poor outcomes for government and the public. To remedy this, Government Procurement is seeking to leverage the collective expertise and buying power of the Whitehall, through the use of common frameworks and the application of Lean techniques to the Cabinet Office’s Accelerated Procurement methodology.
Taken at face value, the changes described by Maxwell appear to be in alignment with this new ethos, signalling shorter, less complex procurements based on a set of common processes, tools and standards. It is also hoped that the bespoke, highly-engineered solutions and ‘gold plating’ of requirements of the past will be replaced by a diverse marketplace of suppliers offering cloud-based, commoditised services. A third objective is to enable public sector organisations to change suppliers with minimal disruption should their requirements change or an incumbent supplier fails to meet their expectations.
However, our prediction is that this will create a new set of strains elsewhere in these organisations. In particular, their technology sourcing, vendor management, architecture and operations functions will have to become more sophisticated – not less – in order to successfully create an integrated and stable ICT environment from a mixed economy of large and small vendors, infrastructure and service providers, with more frequent changes of suppliers.
Those responsible for delivering technology services into these organisations will need to think carefully about how to adapt their existing organisation structure and resource profiles to respond to these new demands. Creating a flexible sourcing model, standards-based technology architecture and comprehensive, end-to-end service management and reporting regime will be critical to managing this environment effectively. One only has to look at the PSN and G-Cloud frameworks that are scheduled to be awarded this year to get an insight into the potential complexity of creating an integrated technology stack across from a menu of up to a dozen potential carriers, 100 network equipment and service providers and several hundred cloud-based service providers, in addition to legacy application providers and (in some cases) on site development teams. These frameworks appear to recognise that aspirations for ‘one size fits all’ solutions for the whole – or even substantial parts of government – are a thing of the past. Each organisation will therefore have to plot their own path through this vendor ecosystem, based on their existing and future requirements.
They will also have to grapple with who will act as the integrator of these services: whether they wish to retain (or create) this capability in house, choose a public or private sector partner to work with them, appoint a ‘prime’ or ‘anchor’ vendor to act as a service integrator on their behalf, or some hybrid of the above approaches.
Kevin Holland, a service management consultant working on behalf of Connecting for Health recognised the complexities surrounding the ‘service integrator’ function of this new approach to sourcing for public sector ICT in a recent interview with Guardian Government Computing. It requires a set of capabilities – knitting together technology services, working with the business to identify future requirements, acting as an ‘informed customer’, incentivising suppliers to work together – that the vendors that might operate in this space have not consistently demonstrated, and few public sector organisations have experience of delivering in the round.
Cloud-based services and standards-based solutions will undoubtedly offer public sector organisations the opportunity to substantially alter their commercial and ownership models for ICT. Used effectively, they will also allow many organisations to break the cycle of complex, resource intensive procurement exercises at one end of the sourcing cycle and vendor lock in at the other. However, those responsible for these activities should not underestimate the intellectual and operational challenges that await them in seeking to adapt this new environment. New energy and focus will need to be invested in developing a sourcing model and putting strategies in place to manage a much more complex technology and vendor ecosystem, if they are to deliver the flexible, responsive and integrated technology services their organisations increasingly demand of them.