Ambitious projects demand expertise that won’t always be found in-house
“SMEs good, systems integrators (SIs) bad” was one of the earliest messages to come from the Conservatives on UK government IT. Before they came to power their lead voice on the subject, the now government chief technology officer Liam Maxwell, attributed many of Whitehall’s IT woes to complex projects with big contracts that gave too much power and too much taxpayers’ money to SIs.
Since 2010 the coalition government has taken some big steps to break the pattern – the £100 million limit on IT contracts, a two year limit on hosting contracts, not allowing firms to run service provision and systems integration in the same area, development of the G Cloud procurement framework – and given SMEs a better chance to grab some of the market. But one message to emerge from Whitehall Media’s Public Sector ICT Conference was that the SIs are still big in the field and they’re not going away.
Several speakers raised the subject, and none claimed or forecast that the SIs’ presence is seriously diminished. There was talk of their role changing – to provide infrastructure for innovators and offer a wider range of distinct services for different projects – but there was an underlying assumption that they will continue to play a major role.
It all comes down to complexity and expertise. Government at all levels is trying to use IT to change the way it works, the Digital by Default strategy aims to make digital services the norm, and there are still major projects such as Universal Credit. These require a lot of expertise – in understanding the technology, programme engineering and risk management – that government often lacks in-house. And the SMEs may have the in-depth expertise for parts of a process, but they’re not well placed to bring together the myriad elements of a big programme.
Government has long been trying to build these skills in-house, but it is difficult to keep up. The technology changes quickly and the private sector is always ready to lure the best and brightest towards higher pay cheques. There are always going to be gaps in government’s skills pool, and it has to buy in expertise to fill those gaps. The message from the conference speakers was that government shouldn’t try to deny this, but manage it to do the best for itself and the taxpayer.
The government’s rules are likely to help in limiting the long term commitments to SIs; sustained efforts to build in-house skills should ensure there are some experts committed to a role in public service; and government needs to retain the intellectual capital from large projects. Measures such as these can make a difference in changing the balance, making government a more powerful customer.
That’s a more realistic relationship to aim for than banishing SIs from government IT.