Don’t leave officials behind with “shiny new” IT, says civil service tech chief
Cabinet Office’s Iain Patterson cautions against changing departmental tech for the sake of it, as he sheds more light on ‘Ocean Liner’ review of big government IT contracts
Departments must avoid alienating staff by bringing in “shiny new” technology as some of the government’s long-running IT outsourcing deals come to an end, according to the man leading efforts to improve the tech used by officials.
Iain Patterson was brought back from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency earlier this year to head up the civil service’s Common Technology Services (CTS) group in the Cabinet Office.
CTS’s mission is to iron out some of the tech frustrations faced by officials as they go about their day-to-day work, and Patterson has been involved in a review taking a fresh look at the government’s approach to IT contracts, as departments move away from a sometimes-decades-long reliance on outsourcing.
Patterson told CSW that the Cabinet Office’s as-yet-unpublished review of IT contracts — dubbed "Ocean Liner” — had concluded there was no “one-size-fits-all” approach that the government should impose on departments as those deals come to an end.
"Everything is built in a unique way and is being built for the purposes of the departments,” he said. "Don’t try and describe to the departments what they should have."
But he said it was important for departments — supported by GDS — to take a strategic look at their needs as they think about the next steps.
"Understand the capabilities you have,” he said. "Understand what you’ve got as far as your contractual commitments. When the contracts expire, work with the companies that hold those contracts to try and change that landscape during the lifetime of the contract.
"And if you can’t do that, then we will try to do things in a different way. But we’ll come out of those contracts understanding what it is that we have in them at that moment in time, what can we commoditise in those, and where they are best suited to be delivered from, whether that's internal, external, or whether there are things we can buy now rather than build."
But Patterson cautioned against imposing drastic changes on departmental systems just because a contract had come to its end — warning that such an approach could leave some officials behind.
“Think about what their needs are, rather than just rolling out something that’s a shiny new piece of kit. For all the benefits you might find in going down the route of putting in something new and web-based, there are going to be people who aren’t used to doing that, who feel uncomfortable with the fact they used to be able to do their emails on the train on the way home.
“These are the things we’ve got to balance — we’ve got to plan that properly, by taking those people, understanding what their needs really are, and looking at the impact of how we manage that change through the lifecycle of the contract exit. That’s key to what we do."
Patterson told the Public Services 2030 conference, organised by industry lobby group Tech UK, that the biggest change he would like to see in the civil service was cultural, rather than technological.
"I would like to, if that magic wand was there, create a culture of embracing change, managing risk — of everybody pooling their resources to make this thing happen." And he said departments needed to "trust each other to run each other’s services” to avoid needless — and sometimes expensive — duplication.
At the DVLA, Patterson oversaw the driver agency’s landmark move to bring more than 300 IT staff back in-house after more than a decade of outsourcing to three big tech firms. Earlier this year, HM Revenue and Customs also reached agreement with existing suppliers Capgemini and Fujitsu to end the government’s single biggest IT deal — Aspire — earlier than planned.
In 2014, the National Audit Office said that HMRC was overly dependent on the technical capability of the Aspire suppliers, which had limited its ability to oversee the deal, and said there had been a “lack of rigour” in HMRC's management of the contract.
It remains unclear whether the findings of the Cabinet Office’s wider Ocean Liner review into the future of IT contracts will be made public.
A Freedom Of Information request filed by CSW at the start of the year to find out the cost of the exercise, when it is likely to report, and what its terms of reference are has not yet resulted in any more detail. A Cabinet Office document on the review, leaked to IT trade title Computer Weekly, reportedly said that the structure of many existing tech deals provided "little incentive" for suppliers to improve efficiency.
Speaking at the same tech conference this week, Government Digital Service chief Stephen Foreshew-Cain said a wider strategy document for GDS — which leads goverment’s digital work and received a £450m funding boost at the Spending Review — would be published “in due course”.
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