Friday, March 06, 2015

Towers of SIAM, trade associations and Civil Servants.

A few weeks back, I picked up on Alex Holmes post on the GDS website - "Knocking Down the Towers of SIAM". As a regular reader of UK Gov's GDS blog (well, I'm a British Citizen who takes an interest in what UK Gov does) then I was really pleased with this post. 

Why? Two reasons.

First, it's great to see my Government talk clearly in the open about these issues. I love this sort of transparency. In days gone past, many of these conversations would have been buried in huddled rooms with suppliers. I, as ultimately one of the many million of UK Citizens that pays for, votes and in effect employs UK Gov was usually left in the dark. 

The second reason was the post tackles a problem with good sense and is not afraid to admit the errors of the past. There's no hubris, just honesty.

From the post ...

"A fundamental part of our guidance was about taking accountability for decisions about technology and digital services back into government. For large parts of the Civil Service that had so completely outsourced their IT, this meant a massive shift in approach, which takes time and can be scary."

Spot on. There was a huge problem in the past with departments becoming reliant on vendors and having little ability to challenge. It's pleasing to see this change.

"This fear of change meant some organisations clung onto the concept of outsourcing, which they understood, but they also wanted to comply with the new policy of multi-sourcing IT provision – something that is recognised as best practice across the industry."

A normal reaction caused by inertia is to attempt to bring the past world of practices into the new world. In the old days, this sort of stuff usually got hidden under the carpet. No more.

"Unfortunately, the combination of these two forces created a hybrid model unique to government. The model is usually referred to as the Tower Model.  It combines outsourcing with multi-sourcing but loses the benefits of either." 

Clear and precise without trying to hide the issue. Something that was implemented was interpreted in a different way. 

"The model has arisen because organisation have used a procurement-led solution in response to legacy outsourcing contracts ending. Rather than changing their approach and emphasis, they have ended up outsourcing their IT again, but in pieces. It was still all about us, not about the needs of our users. "

Ah, the nub of the problem. Rather than apply the right sort of practices (agile for the uncharted, six sigma for the industrialised) and use the right sort of purchasing arrangements (see figure 6 from this post on Government and Purchasing) we've ended up with a undesirable hybrid. 

I'm so tempted to shout out "Go and Fix IT!" but wait ... 

"Organisations have adopted the Tower Model, believing they are following government policy and using best practice, but they are doing neither. I am now writing this post to be clear that the Tower Model is not condoned and not in line with Government policy."

Excellent. Outline the problem, explain the source and tell us what you're going to do about it. I couldn't be more pleased except the post then goes on to apply all sorts of common sense. 

"An important point about multi-sourcing is that different things are bought in different ways:  there is no “one size fits all” methodology.  Commodity products like hosting will still likely be outsourced to utility suppliers, but novel or unique things close to the user may be built in-house.  And components can – and will – be changed often."

"The Tower Model doesn’t work because it doesn’t fully consider what services are needed, or how they fit together and it uses a “one size fits all” methodology.  It relies on procurement requirements to bundle together vertically-integrated outsourcing contracts called things like ‘network’ or ‘desktop’. It also usually outsources the service accountability, architecture and management to a third party."

This is mana from heaven. I'm so pleased, thrilled and happy to hear UK Gov talk about projects in this way. Common sense, frank discussion, transparently and direct to me and the many million of other UK Gov employers (i.e. us voters, when it comes to Government then "they work for us"). This is a million miles away from secret conversations, voters being kept out of the loop and all the other nonsense that comes with such. This one post shows me how good UK Gov IT is and it couldn't make me happier.

However, I was astonished when I started to read some of the comments and subsequent press articles. Many of these were dubious at best and based upon a premise that the past was somehow better. I could spend weeks taking them apart but by fortune, I came across this little gem. 

In the post, techUK was

"surprised and concerned" by GDS announcing "significant change in policy" through a blog post "without any opportunity for industry consultation"

Ok, who are techUK? Well they're a trade alliance that represent companies that provide technology to Government. They help their members and the technology sector to grow. I'm sure they do a lot of good things.

BUT they also 'promote, encourage, foster, develop, co-ordinate and protect the interests of the Members' which. to you and I, is common tongue for lobbying.

I noticed they had suggested "industry" consultation rather than "public" which means firstly introducing a long delay through consultation and secondly we (as in the public) might not get to hear what's happening. I had images of cosy chats kept secret for reasons of commercial confidentiality. Based upon past experience, I prefer the UK Government route of being transparent and moving quickly.

I continued to read.

Apparently the GDS post "has caused our members some alarm". As a UK voter, I was delighted by the GDS post and so this didn't make sense? I'd be alarmed if UK Gov IT wasn't making things more efficient. But maybe that's the problem because making things more efficient usually means someone else isn't making quite so much profit. Could this cause alarm to a member's interest?

It went on ..

"Government must now engage with the whole of the industry, large and small, to help shape future transition and strategy and agree the best way to define and procure the solutions they need."

Again no mention of us (the public) but then it's an industry association I suppose. It felt a bit rich for a trade association to tell Government that it "must now engage". I'm sure I voted for Government to be in charge and not anyone else. I can't imagine that if one of techUK members decided to change their purchasing policy that their supplier would make such demands of them. 

It kept on nagging at me but who is standing up for us (as in the public) then?

So I re-read Alex's post. It was clear that Alex didn't say "Government should focus on a trade association needs" but instead that Government should "focus on user needs" i.e. all of us including you and me. That makes sense. Of course, to do this Government must find the best way to procure the solutions that we need.

We should remember, the whole problem with the past was that Government had outsourced so much it couldn't challenge what its vendors (or 'partners') were saying. This was then though and as Alex made clear - Government needs to decide, it needs to take responsibility. 

By now, I'm starting to feel a bit uncomfortable with the special pleading of a trade association. My sarcasm dial had reached 9. So, to speed the process up I decided to decipher their text into what I think they actually mean or plaintext as I like to call it.

"What is going to happen to current projects and those in the pipeline?"

Plaintext : Some of members have got interests in the projects in your pipeline and are worried that changes might hit their interests.

"What was the evidence base used to cause this change in policy?'

Plaintext : We need you to stop this.

"Will this new approach endure? Or will industry and departments be looking at another change at some time in the future?"

Plaintext : We're going to try and stop you.

It then went on to add a three point plan under the title "techUK outlines its plan for better public services". I was surprised by this. Let us think about this title and be clear about what it means.

A trade association whose memorandum includes protecting members interests is outlining a plan for better services for the Government when some of its members have been providing the services that we need to make better? 

My sarcasm dial went up to 10.

Before starting to read the plan, I wrote down a couple of things that a worst case pleading scenario would have i.e. flogging innovation for stuff that doesn't matter, claiming to do stuff the Government was already doing, emphasising how it would help in some form of "partnership".  So, I opened the link and read the three point plan. It was - engagement, information and innovation.

My sarcasm dial went all the way up to 11. 

At this point a gentle bit of ribbing feels in order. I can't help but add my own translation of this plan with sarcasm set to the max (i.e. snarkytext).

"Better engagement, to support civil servants earlier in the process and help develop policy with technical expertise. techUK members are committing resource to engage much earlier in the process, ensuring officials develop policy with a proper understanding of what technology can do."

Snarkytext: In the good old days, UK Gov had outsourced all its capability to challenge any proposal made and was dependent upon suppliers. We feasted. We'd like to feast again. We are your "partners".

"Better information, providing standardised, transparent reporting. This will overcome the problems of wildly varying reporting requirements on public sector contracts, which had the effect of making one scheme impossible to compare with another. The industry will agree a standardised data and evaluation scheme, allowing Government to pick and choose suppliers more effectively."

Snarkytext: We are going to tell you what information you need and that's all you're going to get. We're going to call it transparency because we know you do a lot of this. But your kind of transparency is not the kind of transparency we want to use. We're going to tell you how to pick and choose vendors. We're going to tell you it's more effective that way. We'd like to feast again. We are your "partners".

"More innovation, giving civil servants the opportunity to experiment and explore solutions in a risk-free environment. techUK's 'innovation den' model will be used to provide a test platform for new projects, and is designed to overcome the problem of public sector innovation being strangled by the fear of failure. techUK will develop a 'techmap' of suppliers, ensuring Government is aware of all the options available to them."

Snarkytext: In the good old days, suppliers feasted because you didn't take responsibility. Civil Servants shouldn't take responsibility. We want to make it risk free. We like risk free because despite the past history of massive IT project failures, you still pay through the nose for it. We also like innovation because you pay through the nose for it. We'd sell you innovative sand if we could. We have a 'den'. If you want to play in our 'den' then give us what we want. We'd like to feast again. We are your "partners".

I'm sure trade associations like techUK do a lot of good work but UK Gov IT has been clear. They want to be transparent, they want to make things better, they're not afraid to admit mistakes and they want to focus on us (as in ALL of us). They want the future. It's time for others to adapt.

Alex is spot on. It is time for government to put user need first and take back control of its IT