Saturday 6 October 2012

The secret to cutting the costs of public sector computer systems

One of biggest problems facing the public sector is the question of how to make ICT work to bring productivity and savings. On the face of it, technology has advanced in so many ways, the potential is obvious: but experience shows that the public sector is not very good at using technology effectively. What has gone wrong?

I am going to propose that the reason the public sector fails in its use of ICT is that it acts within a system based on false premises. I hope I will engage your interest early by laying out those false premises. They are:

  1. Procurement is an effective way of selecting the best supplier of a service.
  2. Competitive tenders provide a competitive environment that force suppliers to deliver competitive prices.
  3. A new computer system that delivers a single service to the UK population or the population of Scotland must be delivered by a single provider. To do anything else would be expensive and more complicated.
  4. Strong governance is critical to ensuring that services are delivered in budget and on time.

Ineffective procurement

Procurement of new IT systems is different from many other forms of procurement. Creating IT systems is a creative task: not one of production and delivery. As such the procurement process is much like the process of recruiting a member of staff, choosing an architect for your new building or the artist who will produce a portrait of the Queen. We can look at previous work and assess it but there are no guarantees that the end result will be what we wanted.

However, the added, and very critical, complication is that government procurement is not, usually, about contracting the services of an individual: it is usually about contracting the services of a large company. So there is no guarantee that the individuals delivering past results will be the same individuals serving you. Indeed the service you receive may be subcontracted and delivered by a smaller company that the government would not have considered awarding the contract to because it had no known track record in the public sector.

As many people in the industry understand: at best, procurement is a good guess at which supplier might end up delivering on what is required. At worst, it is just a process that ensures that, out of a range of suppliers, the government can be seen to have been objective in making a random decision.

Competition in name only

Competitive tending sounds like competition—it has ‘competitive’ in the name! But how many large IT systems can you remember that were delivered on time and in budget?

It seems that the competition, which takes place at the point of tendering, is not a competition that determines the cost of delivery. In other words, the price of the end product changes after the contract has been awarded. What is worse is that we all know this. Somehow, we just choose to ignore this awkward truth.

Competition is only effective if it continues to be competitive not just once every five years, but year upon year, week upon week.

Competitive tenders cannot work if the resulting contracts give suppliers a guarantee of being able to provide a service for any substantive length of time. This is not a criticism of any supplier it is simply a fact about what competition is. Competition is competition: a contract for five years is not a competition!

A single service does not demand a single provider

Computer systems have evolved whilst the public sector was sleeping.

How many of us are aware that when we log onto Amazon to buy something we are not all logging onto the same computer? Are we aware that the computer we actually log onto may be in any number of countries in the world and that the computer system may have selected us to trial a new service which is different from the service being offered at the very same time to the person sitting beside us on another computer logging onto Amazon?

The age of the single centrally run mainframe computer are past. The computer industry has discovered that it is cheaper to run vast numbers of anonymous and relatively small desktop like computers than trying to develop and maintain highly complex single supercomputers. (Spot the irony!) The industry is learning to take big tasks and break them down into small numbers of small tasks which can then be farmed out to lots of computers and processors to carry out the work and report back. This system is far more robust because the failure of one computer system is a small setback that can be worked around whereas the failure of a dedicated mainframe may be a disaster. Indeed, modern distributed computer systems expect computers to fail.

So when we log onto Amazon, we are identified and allocated to a computer that deals with our requests. There is no reason why everyone in the UK or Scotland should have their requests serviced by the same computer, nor even the same service provider.

But we are wedded to the idea that centralisation and large scale delivery brings ‘efficiencies of scale’ and mass production. We still believe in the mainframe, even if it is a thing of the past!

But suppling the same service from multiple providers would be complicated and expensive

How could two different suppliers provide the same service to different groups of the public?

This question turns out to be as bizarre as the answer is familiar. How about if I asked, “How could two different plumbers fit gas central heating to different groups of the public?” Well of course they could!

So, why can’t two different providers provide the same IT based public service to different groups of the public? As soon as we see the reference to IT, we focus on the IT system and not on the service. We start to be convinced that the computer system has to be the same. But we don’t mind if two plumbers do their job differently as long as they do a good job and the system works. If one supplier does a bad job, we won’t use them again. It’s called competition!

Do we really believe that plumbers would be cheaper if there was one central plumbing company for everyone serviced by their own central call centre?

I understand that some people still believe in a non-privatised public sector run by people of integrity concerned to deliver a good service. But we are not talking about public servants here. We are talking about public services that are already delivered by the private sector.

For “governance,” substitute, “delay and cost”

The word ‘governance’ is all the rage. Wikipedia says, “Governance is the act of governing. It relates to decisions that define expectations, grant power, or verify performance”. It seems to me that most of the governance I hear about is none of these. It is a governance centred around avoiding doing the wrong thing. It reflects a politics more fearful of mistakes than inspired to deliver innovation and greatness.

I would go further and say that governance in the world of public sector ICT in Scotland is all about avoiding making mistakes.

Sadly we will never innovate if we don’t allow people to make mistakes. We may all grow old and die but the ‘governance’ we are talking about here will never give us innovation. I am minded to point people to read Tim Harford’s book “Adapt”. A book which presses home the critical importance of experimentation in innovation whilst reflecting on why this is so hard for governments.

Why are we fearful of mistakes? We are fearful of mistakes because the costs of mistakes are enormous. Why are the costs enormous? Because we believe in delivering centralised services from single providers for contracts lasting as long as ten years. Why do we do this? We do this, because we believe it is the only option.

It isn’t.

Thursday 30 August 2012

"Significant weaknesses in management of ICT programmes" in the Public Sector in Scotland

Today Audit Scotland published the report: “Managing ICT contracts—An audit of three public sector programmes” [1]. This report is a “lessons learned” examination of the management of three Scottish public sector projects identified for raising concerns over the delay or cancellation of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) projects.

In summary, the report comes up two leading key messages [p.3, 1]:

  • “There were significant weaknesses with the management of the three programmes.”
  • “A key factor in the failure to deliver the programmes as intended was the public sector bodies’ lack of specialist skills and experience.”

It then recommendations that [p.4, 1]:

  • All central government bodies should:
    • “ensure that senior managers and boards use the questions in Appendix 1 [of the report] to scrutinise and challenge the management of ICT programmes.”
  • The Scottish Government should:
    • “assess the skills required for future central government ICT programmes and ensure these skills are accessible to public bodies.”
    • “review the purpose, use and frequency of Gateway Reviews to consider the scope for improvements.”
    • “ensure that it has strategic oversight of significant ICT programmes across central government.”
    • “promote the learning arising from ICT programmes by ensuring that the findings [all the] ‘lessons learned’ exercises, and all future exercises, are distributed appropriately across the public sector and that public bodies have access to the appropriate skilled resources to be able to implement them.”
    • “seek assurances from those central government bodies with ongoing significant ICT programmes that the issues raised in this report regarding weaknesses in management, are not also present in those programmes.”

Why are we still making such obvious mistakes?

On the face of it this all seems to be entirely sensible. The report is very clear and succinct, it raises important issues and is well presented. But the biggest question it raises is the one question it doesn’t ask: why are such obvious mistakes being made in the first place?

Take a look at the Appendix [p.21, 1] of the report and the “Key Questions” it suggests should be asked of the management of key projects. Here are the first four in the “Planning” section:

  • Has the public body developed a detailed procurement plan?
    • Has the public body assessed whether the scope of the contract is achievable?
    • Have options for the procurement route been evaluated?
    • Is there a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities between suppliers and client?
    • Has business continuity and future exit and transition strategies been considered at a high level at this stage?

These might seem important, but let’s remember that these questions are targeted at senior public sector project managers: not at volunteers who have never managed a project before. To a project manager this is the equivalent of reminding an adult to look left and right before crossing a road.

How could you possibly manage a project and not check that, “the scope of the contract is achievable”? How could you enter into a procurement exercise without evaluating the options? Of course a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities is core to the success of a project. Of course, the risks associated with failure and change need to be assessed and mitigated against at the highest level they can impact.

So, why do project managers need to be reminded of these things? Why do we need to be reminded of any of this when it says almost nothing different from the 2003 “Government IT projects” report [2]; or the 2004 HM Treasury letter, “Delivering success in government acquisition-based programmes and projects” [3]; or the Prince2 Healthcheck chapter in the 2005 edition of the Prince2 project management standard [p. 413–420, 4]


So why are obvious mistakes being made?

  • Are the project managers under-qualified for their roles?
  • Are these practices considered to be paperwork exercises rather than critical parts of the job?
  • Is there a culture which undervalues these things?
  • Do senior managers scrutinise reports or do they consider the reports to be no more than paperwork that allows “sign off”?
  • Are critical parties too overburdened with responsibilities to give due time and attention to these matters?
  • Is there disagreement about what the best practice is?
  • Who are the individuals who are responsible for guaranteeing that this work is carried out?

These are the unanswered questions that really matter. These are the questions that lead to a true identification of what has gone wrong and what can be put right.

But, who is going to take the bull by the horns? Who, in the de-skilled public sector and its proliferation of boards and governance committees is going to put their head above the parapet and take a stance? Is the real truth here the fact that the Scottish Government has lost the drive and capacity to fix itself? The paperwork machine has turned full-circle: even the audit reports intended to hold government to account are now just a paperwork exercise that tick a box and allow everything to meander onwards towards fully embraced incompetence.

And then there’s the next level

So, yes, we urgently need to do something to dilute our national incompetence. But funnily enough, as a nation, we should actually be trying to achieve something much better. We should actually be trying to deliver some of the best services in the world with the best technologies in the world, in the most environmentally efficient ways in the world and then we should be selling our skills and achievements to the rest of the world. Do we really not believe we are capable of that?

If we are going to be world leading (and we can be), then we need to realise that this audit report doesn’t even begin to touch on what is best practice in the delivery of IT projects in the UK, let alone in the world. We need to recognise that tightening up governance procedures is not the way to save public money or deliver rapid and high quality results. Let’s remember that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service took just short of two years and £2,300,000 just to plan a project and decide not to go ahead because it was going to be too expensive!

Whilst the document is written for the government in Westminster, there is a lot of truth in the Institute for Government report, “System Error–Fixing the flaws in government IT”:

Most attempts to solve the problems with government IT have treated the symptoms rather than resolved the underlying system-wide problems. This has simply led to doing the wrong things ‘better’. [p.9, 5]

Indeed, whilst the Audit Scotland report feels like a polite and professionally produced attempt at teaching a grandmother to suck eggs, the “System Error” report feels like the considered opinion of professionals talking to professionals. I wonder if anyone in the Scottish Government has read it?

  1. Audit Scotland, “Managing ICT contracts—An audit of three public sector programmes”, August 2012.

  2. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, “Government IT projects”, July 2003.

  3. HM Treasury Letter: “Delivering Success in Government Acquisition-based Programmes and Projects”, DAO(GEN)07/04, 30 March 2004. Reproduced in Appendix 3, pp. 49–53 of National Audit Office, “Delivering successful IT-enabled business change”, 17 November 2006:

  4. OGC, “Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2”, 2005 Edition (and most probably in the latest edition too). Despite being the UK government’s “standard method for project management”, the standard documents are only available commercially and I know that public sector staff are sometimes unable to obtaining a copy on the grounds of the expenditure.

  5. Institute for Government, “System Error—Fixing the flaws in government IT”, March 2011.

Friday 29 June 2012

Do Shared Services Save Money?

Pooling of knowledge, experience and capacity offers the best chance to meet the challenges faced by the public sector—reduction of resources available while having to meet increasing demand on services as a result of an ageing population.[“Drivers for Shared Services”, 1]

In many public sector contexts it seems that shared services[2] are assumed without question to be a way of saving money. There may be difficulties in establishing and maintaining shared services between organisations, but there is an expectation that overcoming those problems will lead to long term financial benefits. But why?

The mostly obvious reason is in the name. “Shared Services” describe things that are shared. Sharing one thing is surely more cost effective than separately having two.

Let’s imagine for a moment that I sit in a room with other workers and we all have printers on our desks. The printers spend most of their time doing nothing but sometimes they print things. Wouldn’t it be more cost effective for everyone in the room to share the one printer? Yes… it almost certainly would. That is, assuming that the process of printing to a single shared printer doesn’t become so complicated that the time spent printing outweighs the cost benefits of sharing a single piece of hardware.

But how about if we all share seats?

Well, of course that’s a silly idea. We can’t all sit on the same seat at the same time. Perhaps we might find that there are always at least two people out of the room at any one time, in which case there might just be a case for sharing a pool of seats, but that would be the limit of seat sharing.

So are shared services a good idea? The answer, of course, is, ‘it depends!’

Pros and cons of sharing services

Shared services will only bring benefits if the circumstances are right:

  • If there is spare capacity then sharing that capacity somewhere else may be a good idea.
  • If there is insufficient scale to hold capacity then sharing resources may allow for a service that can’t otherwise be there and improve productivity as a result.
  • If sharing services raises demand above a given threshold it may become cost-effective to obtain a different kind of service that brings higher productivity benefits. For example, a sit on lawnmower rather than a push-lawnmower.

But there are good reasons why sharing services may reduce productivity:

  • If the shared services don’t quite meet the requirements for one party or both.
  • If sharing the service involves more travel, time or communication costs.
  • If sharing a service requires the establishment of administrative services to manage the sharing.
  • If sharing a service requires the introduction of additional process steps which themselves introduce cost and waste.
  • If sharing a service makes a process harder to change and improve because it requires full agreement across all users.

So when you next hear proposals of public sector cost savings from shared services: ask a few questions and see where the savings are actually coming from. Don’t be surprised to discover that many of the proposed savings from shared services come from a bare unjustified assumption like:

Shared services have been found to bring savings of 10% to 20% therefore, if we normally spend £1,000,000 we can expect to save at least £100,000 by introducing shared services.

Indeed, as far as I have been able to uncover, this is basis of many of the McClelland Report’s[3] proposed savings for ICT in the public sector in Scotland.

Shared Services Guidance

The Scottish Government, provides guidance on the sharing of services[1]. But this guidance whilst extensive and detailed in sections, gives no space to a discussion of the circumstances when shared services may be less efficient than separate ones. Indeed there is only a very brief reference to any need to assess the justification for shared services and this is simply through reference to the need for a ‘business case’.

Whilst huge amounts of time and money are going into the centralisation of police and fire services across Scotland and local authorities throughout Scotland are under considerable pressure to share services in order to save money, it may be that they would do far better sharing their ideas and costs but implementing them independently[4].

  1. Scottish Government, “Shared Services Guidance 2011”

  2. For details of the Scottish Government’s work on Shared Services see this page of their web site:  ↩

  3. The McClelland Report: “Review of ICT Infrastructure in the Public Sector in Scotland”, June 2011,  ↩

  4. “Is the evidence of shared services success flawed?”, Inside Outsourcing, Computer Weekly, Karl Flinders, August 2011,  ↩

Monday 25 June 2012

The Alternative ICT Strategy for the Public Sector in Scotland

By September 2012, the Scottish Government is scheduled to deliver an ICT Strategy for the Public Sector in Scotland[1].  This is a huge opportunity for Scotland to reform the public sector’s use of ICT into a service that facilitates the move into a citizen centred, efficient public sector tailored to the varying needs of a diverse and distributed population. Unfortunately, it could also turn out to be a missed opportunity.

Here is my ‘alternative’ ICT Strategy document.  It is a work in progress so this blog entry will be changing over time.[2]  This is what I would like the government ICT strategy document to look like!

Core technology building blocks

To deliver public services in Scotland, the government has adopted some core technologies on which everything can be built.  These technologies are well defined, current, standard and adaptable.

The Internet

The Internet is the principal highway of communication in the world.  Rather than re-inventing the wheel by producing a separate Public Sector Network (PSN[3]), Scotland is going to use the Internet.  It will invest resources to ensure that every community in Scotland has high-speed internet and that there is sufficient redundancy in the system to provide reliability and resilience.  The Scottish Government will encourage research into technologies that reduce the energy consumption of the internet infrastructure by reducing power use and allowing redundant capacity to be switch off when it is not required. Work will be carried out to take existing dedicated public sector infrastructure and make it PSN compliant until such times as dedicated public sector networking is no-longer required. This PSN compliant sub-network will be referred to as SWAN (the Scottish Wide Area Network).[4]

Cloud Hosting

Wherever possible public services will be hosted in the cloud using technologies that are agnostic to the cloud service provider.  There will be no Scottish government specific cloud (G-Cloud[5]) but the public sector in Scotland will, given the required security clearance, have access to services offered to the UK public sector on the UK G-Cloud.

All confidential data relating to Scottish citizens will be stored on servers physically located within Scotland where there is absolutely no ambiguity over legal jurisdiction.

Services which do not relate to confidential data or only process confidential data in memory, through access controlled from Scotland can be located on servers anywhere in the world. However, in purchasing these services preference will be given to services located closest to central Scotland by Internet distance as this reduces the carbon footprint of transmissions.

For clarity this means that, given sufficient cloud hosting capacity within Scotland, at a moments notice, in the event of some international crisis, it would be possible to transfer all public sector processing within Scotland and all relevant data would already reside there.  However, under normal circumstances, the public sector would be free to innovate using any service that provide a suitable balance of service quality, cost and ease of use.

In all cases data will be electronically secured to a level which is sufficient to prevent unauthorised access but is not excessive such that it prevents or overcomplicates legitimate use.


Whilst the HTML5 standard is still being developed, it has become the point of technological convergence for web based services.  The latest desktop web browsers: IE, Chrome, Firefox, Safari support it as does the WebKit engine behind chrome which sits on Android and iOS mobile devices.  There is a Chrome plug-in available that provides HTML5 support for older versions of Internet Explorer on Windows.

All public services will be delivered as web services using HTML5 on standard devices that support it.  All systems will be open-sourced and the private sector will be encouraged to develop alternative ways of interacting with these services.  The public sector will have local freedom to adopt alternative solutions where they are felt to provide cost effective benefits to the community.

99% of existing hardware infrastructure within the public sector can support Internet based web services so no extra hardware investment is required up front to support this strategy.  In many cases, when computer systems require to be upgraded they can be replaced by Raspberry Pi[6] computers that will act as fully function internet clients at a fraction of the cost of computer systems in use today.  These savings will be used to fund the one-computer-per-pupil programme described later in this document. 

Other technologies

Other technologies can and will be used in small scale pilots and in circumstances which specifically require them.  However, all the systems built to use these technologies will be open-sourced and any dependency on a propitiatory and unsubstitutable technology will be clearly documented and explained.

Procurement of hardware

In the past the government has tended to favour large scale procurement of hardware with the view that the larger the purchase the better the deal. However, in practice it turns out that large purchases are very slow to procure and the costs of administration and delay can outweigh any apparent economies of scale. It is also the case that such procurements are often far too large to be tendered for by companies based in Scotland.

From now on the government will, wherever possible, allow procurement to be carried out at a local level.  However, to ensure that this is carried out in a cost effective way, all procurement costs will be published within one month of the transaction along with all contractual terms. This work will be carried out in coordination with the Benchmarking of Scottish Public Bodies[7] which will be standardised across every public body in Scotland to address issues with the existing process[8].

No procurement can or will take place under company confidential contractual terms without a public written explanation.  By publishing this information prices can be driven down and local purchasers can compare costs from local suppliers and make informed choices based on this information.  A central government procurement team will be made available to provide skilled procurement and administrative support so that the cost of procurement is minimised.  The central team will fulfil the administrative burden of publishing procurement details.

IT Hardware and Infrastructure support

Central government, as well as maintaining its own hardware and infrastructure will offer hardware and infrastructure support to local services at no less than full cost price including an appropriate share of all the associate overheads.  However, this support will be prioritised to new, smaller and remote services and larger and more established services will be encouraged to establish or buy in their own support locally where it can be tailored to local needs and can be located close to the need at lower cost.

As with hardware procurement, all costs will be made public and shared across the public sector within a month of any contracts being signed to provide the Management Information (MI) to enable sharing of cost savings without tying organisations into restrictive shared services contracts.

Public sector software development

Wherever possible the public sector will choose to use existing standard ‘off the shelf’ software to deliver services. In contrast to previous policies the assumption will be made that ‘free’ open source solutions are the first choice unless there is a good case for using a commercial product. Wherever a commercial product is used instead of an equivalent open source solution, a justification for this decision will be published along with the invitation to tender.

Whenever software has to be custom built for the public sector, this software will be open sourced by default[9]. Any exceptions will have to be justified along with a published explanation of the reason for the exception. Under normal circumstances commercial confidentiality will not be an acceptable reason for closed sourcing software built specifically for the public sector. As we transition to this policy there will be a number of public sector software systems which will contain new open source elements that depend upon legacy closed-source systems. By the end of 2013 a full list of these will be published along with a proposed time-scale for phasing out the closed-source dependencies. Note that this specifically relates to software custom built for the public sector and does not prevent the use or dependency upon standard close-source software libraries, tools or packages.

The general principal is that public money invested in the development of software for the public sector should result in publicly available software which can be openly used and developed over time. By doing this we are working to removing the unfair advantage currently afforded to the current supplier to government. This will also enable smaller companies to contribute to parts of an overall system.

The Scottish Government Digital Service (SGDS)

In order to manage this central repository of publicly owned open-source software, a new Scottish Government Digital Service (SGDS) will be set-up modelled around the early successes of the Westminster Government Digital Service[10]. This service will take over the work of the Direct Scot portal and begin its work by developing a number of simple services for the public sector throughout Scotland. As well as open sourcing and taking over the development of the the Scottish Public Sector portal: “DirectScot”[11], the SGDS will also work with research groups in Scotland to develop and open source the core Revenue Scotland tax calculation models which will be used to process all tax calculations for Revenue Scotland. The SGDS will work closely with the vibrant and world class developer community in Scotland and will encourage contributions and ideas from that community.

Technology in education

Open source, open data and education

The Scottish Government sees a great opportunity to bring together open data and computer systems for public services with the needs of education to provide students with interdisciplinary learning opportunities for learning information technology skills.  A significant proportion of learners struggle to engage and find relevance in curriculum content.  However, the government will be open sourcing almost every aspect of public sector computing systems including data processing, statistical analysis, financial processing, graphical design, user interface design and animation.  This means that there are opportunities from primary education through to college and university to use real-life examples as case studies, projects and exercises.  But unlike education as we know it today, the work produced and submitted, in whole or in part, can be incorporated into the services of the nation within days of the work being completed.

Imagine for example a primary school project to enhance or redesign the Visit Scotland web page for a local tourist attraction where the end result was used for real within days of the project ending.  Imagine a university accounting project to report on weaknesses in the code used by government to compare regional expenditure on roads maintenance.  How about a computer science project to improve the algorithm for choosing the shortest public transport route between locations used by the public transport infrastructure of Scotland.  This is truly win win for everyone.  Even the private sector benefits by being able to build products and services on a rich and vibrant infrastructure of open systems and data.  Such products and systems would have a global market.

Computers become the new paper and pencil

For many years the level of use of computers in schools has poorly reflected their use in the world of work.  This situation has been confounded by the cost of providing computers in schools and means that most pupils have only limited access to shared computers at school.  Consequently computing has been seen principally as a subject to learn rather than computers being common place tools like pen and paper.  However, from August 2013 every pupil in every school in Scotland will have access to their own Raspberry Pi[6] computer which they will take with them from class to class and class to home.  In a dramatic step forward, the curriculum will be able to rely on the availability of technology to support the individual learning of every pupil in every subject in every school and every home.

Future Glow

After some consultation, the Government has decided to withdraw from plans to adopt a closed Microsoft managed and designed replacement for Glow for Education[12]. Following extensive feedback received, we recognise that committing to a service delivered and designed by one company would be a waste of taxpayers money as it would lock the government into monopoly control over modifications and advancements in the platform. Indeed we recognise that the whole concept of using large multinationals to both advise government and then supply services is inappropriate and will no longer take place.

We have invited Charlie Love, the author of Glew[13] to work on secondment to the SGDS and work with an agile software team there to put the necessary infrastructure, support and security in place to make this service available to all schools in Scotland in pilot form by December 2012.

High speed broadband and WiFi Scotland

As well as fulfilling our commitment to rolling out high speed broadband throughout Scotland, we will also be facilitating the delivery of free public access WiFi hotspots in community centres (libraries, post-offices, etc.) within every community in Scotland. Branded “WiFi Scotland” these hotspots will ensure that everyone in Scotland is close to a point where they can connect to high speed broadband with their own WiFi enabled device. We will also be working with local councils to ensure that every community (that does not already do so) has a public access area where anyone can access the internet without having to have their own computer.

WiFi Scotland - building on a Scotland as the best place to do business

In addition to ensuring that every community has access to broadband, we will also set up a scheme to enable every hotel and conference venue in Scotland to provide free WiFi under the same consistent “WiFi Scotland” branding and logon. The cost of this scheme will be fully met by the venues but will be highly competitive and provided through existing commercial providers contracted to central government. The Scottish Digital Service will support this by providing an open data service listing all available access points throughout the country and enabling a mechanism for users to report faults or service problems so that we can work to ensure that the quality of the service is high.

We believe that this service will build on Scotland’s existing high ranking as a place to do business giving business travellers and conference organisers the confidence that wherever they meet or travel in Scotland they can be confident of high speed internet sufficient to meet requirements like live video conferencing and broadcasting.

Meetings redesigned

Whilst we will always recognise the particular value of personal interaction and face to face meetings, it is impossible to ignore the huge costs associated with arranging and conducting physical meetings within the public sector. We also recognise that such meetings are not always an effective way of conducting business which may require ideas to be discussed and commented upon in a way that could be carried out more effectively online. Beginning in September 2012 the Scottish Government will embark on a one year consultation to establish a new strategy for carrying out public sector meetings. The aim of this consultation to determine when and in what circumstances we can conduct meetings that do not require everyone to be physically located in the same place or necessarily at the same time.

… to be continued

Change log

  • 4 April - added reference to cloud computing.
  • 4 April - added “Technology in educational” section and reference to savings in IT hardware through the deployment of Raspberry Pi’s in some public service contexts.
  • 9 April - posted as Gist on Github (to make it easier for others to track changes) and added sections on open sourcing software and setting up a Scottish Government Digital Service.
  • 28 April - added WiFi Scotland and study on meeting redesign.
  • 25 June - updated facts relating to delayed release of government ICT strategy and the announcement of SWAN; added links to cross reference blog articles on issues raised such as the PSN and Open Source software in the public sector; and added reference to the SGDS taking on the role of developing the Revenue Scotland calculation models. Also added references to Glow, Glew and yet another policy change :)

  1. The ICT Strategy was originally due to be delivered in Spring 2012 but is now due for release in September 2012 after a public draft is released for informal comment.  ↩

  2. The original Markdown format text of this document is stored in a GitHub:gist where it can viewed along with a history of edits since 9 April 2012.  ↩

  3. Public Sector/Services Network (the name changed during the development of the idea): Despite strong arguments made about the cost savings of introducing the PSN, the arguments seem to be internally inconsistent:  ↩

  4. The Scottish Government announced SWAN (Scottish Wide Area Network) in June 2012. A nod to this is given here to fit in with policy commitments.  ↩

  5. The G-Cloud Programme:  ↩

  6. The “Raspberry Pi” is a low cost computer designed by the Raspberry Pi Foundation charity as a $35 computer for kids. For more details see:  ↩

  7. “Benchmarking of Scottish Public Bodies’ Corporate Services 2010/11”, Scottish Government, 14 June 2012.

  8. Figures obtained from the “Benchmarking of Scottish Public Bodies” would either suggest huge waste in expenditure on ICT provisions or a failure to standardise the benchmarking process around useful and comparable measures:  ↩

  9. A fuller background discussion and FAQ on using Open Source in the public sector in Scotland can be found here:  ↩

  10. Westminster Government Digital Service:  ↩

  11. The current prototype DirectScot website can be found here:  ↩

  12. The full text of and further discussion of the Glow announcement of 8 June 2012 can be found here: A more recent news update was also published on 23 June here:  ↩

  13. Glew is beta software of a single sign-on framework which can be used to integrate Google Apps for Education and other services such as Wordpress Blogs, Media Wiki, Moodle and many more:  ↩

Friday 22 June 2012

ICT Costs in Scottish Public Bodies

The Scottish Government recently published their final report, “Benchmarking of Scottish Public Bodies’ Corporate Services 2010/11”[1]. I will be quite frank and say that this report in its published form is almost entirely useless as it anonymises all the information and presents conclusions like:

The total cost of the ICT function ranged from £14,000 to £15.5 million in 2010/11. Costs of ICT were below £1 million in 21 organisations and were above £10 million in two public bodies. The organisations with higher costs often have specific ICT requirements because of the nature of their business, have a large number of users (employees and/or the public) and/or provide ICT services to other bodies. Since 2009/10, 21 organisations have had an increase in ICT costs and 17 have had a decrease. The differences level out when looking at the bodies as a whole, with average costs remaining largely the same in both years.[p. 3, 1]

Whilst this provides information, it provides practically nothing to highlight issues which may require investigation or provide opportunities for optimisation looking forward. However, the document goes on to state:

Going forward, the benchmarking information will be used by the central government sector in their contributions to the response to the McClelland Review of ICT Infrastructure in the Public Sector in Scotland.[p. 4, 1]

The McClelland report[2] is all about making ICT more efficient in the public sector and particularly focuses on the need to share and combine services in order to obtain efficiencies of scale.

However, all is not lost. I contacted the Scottish Government and asked for the unpublished figures that were used to derive this report, particularly focusing on the ICT aspects of the report. They very efficiently sent me the spreadsheets along with cautions over the accuracy of the data. I have graphed some of the data[3] to raise issues which are not highlighted by the benchmarking report but may be well worth investigating.

ICT Costs in Scottish Public Bodies' Corporate Services 2010/110100000000200000000300000000Overall revenue0100020003000400050006000700080009000100001100012000130001400015000Total ICT expenditure per employee per year0100000000200000000300000000Overall revenue0100020003000400050006000700080009000100001100012000130001400015000Total ICT expenditure per employee per yearAIBASBGACNPACMALCCCOPFSDSGROSHIEHSHMIELTSNASNGSNLSNMSOSCRROSRBGERCAHMSSACSCRASCRCSCSSESEPASFCSGSLABSNHSPSSPPASQASPSCSAASLLTNPAVS

This graph shows the 38 out of 44 public bodies included in the report which provided information on the total cost of ICT per employee and the total cost of ICT. Each organisation is listed by its abbreviation a full index to these can be found in the Benchmark report[Appendix 1, 1]. Note that in March 2012 there were a total of 144 public bodies and “Participation amongst the remaining public bodies is encouraged, but is not mandatory”[p. 5, 1]. It seems highly surprising that this level of Management Information (MI) is not available and mandated from every public body, particularly as we are now over one year on from the McClelland report that specifically highlighted the poor availability of information regarding ICT costs.[p. 13, 2].

The x-axis of the graph shows the overall revenue of each listed organisation, so, for example the Scottish Government (SG) is listed as approximately £250m.

The y-axis of the graph shows the benchmarking calculation of the total ICT cost per employee within the organisation. In other words, as I understand it, this is how much it costs to provide a computer (usually 1 per employee) to an employee and provide the networking, software and support services to keep it operational for a year. This ranges from just over £500 per employee for the Scottish Prisons Service (SPS) to an amazing £13,000 per employee for the Registers of Scotland (ROS). Yes indeed, the figures do suggest that it costs just short of 25 times more to support a computer for a member of staff of the ROS than to the SPS! Indeed, it would appear that you could supply a member of staff of ROS with two brand new computers every month and still have change left over.

Looking at the graph it is hard to see why any of the organisations should be paying £2,000 to £13,000 per employee per year when there are a number of small public bodies that are able to provide the service for approximately £1,000 per employee per year. After all, at the top end you can buy a nice Apple computer for £1,000 which should last for at least 3 years, equalling £333 per year which leaves you with another £667 per year to pay for software, electricity, networking and support for one person. If every public body listed here were to run with these costs the figures suggest that we would save £55m per year, and note that this list does not include the NHS in Scotland or any of the local councils.

I suspect that some of these figures are misleading and probably include things that shouldn’t be included in employee costs like the costs of running public facing web sites. But that isn’t an explanation or excuse. At a time when experienced staff are loosing their jobs in order to save money, there can be no excuse for not being able to produce the figures that explain what is going on.

So, finally, in the graph the size of each dot represents the overall ICT expenditure of the organisation. So you can see that whilst the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) has roughly the same cost of ICT per employee as the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), the former’s absolute ICT expenditure is far smaller than the presumably larger SQA. Notable here is the fact that some of the organisations with the larger ICT expenditures have the highest costs per employee and some of those with the smallest expenditure have the lowest costs per user. This is potentially significant because there is a suggestion with the McClelland Report that costs can be saved by sharing services to obtain efficiencies of scale, but this graph would seem to suggest that scale does not guarantee efficiency.

I hope this article raises some important discussions and welcome critical feedback.

  1. The Scottish Government, “Benchmarking of Scottish Public Bodies’ Corporate Services 2010/11”, June 2012,

  2. John McClelland, “Review of ICT Infrastructure in the Public Sector in Scotland”, June 2011,

  3. Note that, in the interests of expediency and visual clarity the graph was produced using SVG graphics which will not work on versions of Internet Explorer prior to version 9 unless the Chrome Frame plugin has been installed. The graph should render fine on Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Webkit based mobile browsers such as those on iOS and Android devices.  ↩

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