Retiring from the civil service allows you a certain leeway. In the months leading up to my retirement two years ago, I was able to make a few public pronouncements about the state of government IT that I would never have got away with before.

I said that the way government IT was run — and in particular, the relationship with technology suppliers — was unacceptable. I said that Whitehall CIOs and systems integrators (SIs) must stop hiding beneath a comfort blanket, and that some of them just didn’t have the capability to see through the change needed in public sector IT.

We spend about £16bn a year on IT in government. How many hospitals or schools would that buy? It really was unacceptable — but things are changing.

I helped to set up what is now the Government Digital Service (GDS), and launched the G-Cloud framework, and it is great to see the progress they have made. Both of them have been recent targets of criticism and whispering campaigns — a fact that I am delighted about. It means they are being taken seriously, and are shaking up the people that needed to be shaken up.

When I hear people say, “But there are over 1000 suppliers on G-Cloud, how am I meant to know which one to buy from?”, then I say in response: “Would you rather choose from eight big SIs, with no transparency of pricing, no innovative SMEs to turn to, and go through a lengthy procurement exercise?”

When people complain that GDS has tried to change too much, too fast — then I say, thank goodness they have!

And in particular, when I hear big suppliers bleat about the way they are dealt with by government IT buyers now, I will very happily list the projects they screwed up, and count the money we wasted with them for years.

Most of all we want [big IT suppliers] to listen, and to understand the changes that still need to be made. Because there is a long way to go to complete the reform of government IT, and we need their help

By contrast, when I hear that one of the largest Whitehall departments turned to the biggest IT supplier to government for a hosting service and was quoted £8m, only to find that an identical service was available on G-Cloud for £1m, I think that at last people are starting to get it.

Even better, that big IT supplier was suddenly able to match that £1m price — how did they manage that, you have to wonder?

I and others still in Whitehall, like government CTO Liam Maxwell, have been accused of exaggerating the problems with the big SIs — the oligopoly as they have come to be known. We have been accused of bias against them. But that just is not true.

What we all want is for those suppliers to change. We want them to be more transparent, more competitive, and to deliver better services. We want to no longer be locked into them because they support genuine open standards. Most of all we want them to listen, and to understand the changes that still need to be made. Because there is a long way to go to complete the reform of government IT, and we need their help.

The civil service has to change too. One of the best things to happen since I retired is the re-skilling of IT, with GDS bringing in talented IT developers, designers and project managers. Government needs to take back ownership of IT strategy, architecture and design, and understand how and when to use suppliers. Everyone will be better off as a result.

The next challenge is to re-skill the big Whitehall departments as well, and reverse the drain of skills that was lost as a result of all those big outsourcing deals. It is fair to accuse government of not being an intelligent buyer. That too is changing, but perhaps not fast enough.

A few years ago, if anyone had suggested that it would be possible to reduce the government IT bill by huge chunks — and I don’t mean 10% here or 20% there, I mean 80% less than what is spent now — while delivering better services, that are more user focused, and more capable to change as policy changes — well, they would have been laughed out the building.

But that prospect is tantalisingly close, and smart people are starting to realise it and see what needs to be done.

The next 18 months will be crucial. GDS will deliver many of the digital transactional services it has committed to — which, under the scrutiny that comes with the run-up to a General Election, will be an acid test for the digital strategy.

The election itself will inevitably lead to a review of progress on IT no matter who wins. I’ve already heard whispers that Labour sees GDS as some sort of Tory creation. I really hope they take the time to understand what GDS is about and what it can achieve before they tinker with it, should they form the next government.

I said two years ago that unacceptable IT was pervasive in government. Now, as I watch from the sidelines, I can see that the opportunity for change is becoming pervasive. Don’t waste it.

Chris Chant retired from the civil service in 2012 after 36 years as a public servant. He was the original programme director for G-Cloud, and government digital director. Prior to this he was CIO at the Government Olympic Executive and CIO for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He also worked at the former Inland Revenue where he led delivery of what is now HM Revenue & Customs’ online self-assessment, and worked as programme director at the Cabinet Office on multi-agency IT services, such as the Government Gateway. He now lives in rural France, drives a 2CV, and occasionally consults for Rainmaker Solutions, advising governments across Europe on digital strategy.

This is a reproduction of an article Chris Chant contributed to Computer Weekly.

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