Friday 24 June 2011

Response to Strategic Principles of McClelland Report "Review of ICT Infrastructure in the Public Sector in Scotland"

Apologies in advance for the length of this post. The post consists of the 12 proposed strategic principles of the McClelland Report with comments after each one.

Direct comments and responses to the 12 Proposed Strategic Principles of the "Review of ICT Infrastructure in the Public Sector in Scotland":

"Although 'information management' is a core activity it is not essential to operate totally self-sufficient local information processing, support and development."

This statement on its own is irrefutable and I would be surprised if any public sector body was truly "totally self-sufficient". However, the implication of this 'strategic principal' within the McClelland report strongly argues the case against local 'in-house' knowledge. And the reduction of local in-house knowledge is a dangerous proposition that does need to be evaluated very seriously in each context.

In short, removal of or outsourcing of local ICT knowledge disempowers the local body from making choices or innovating around the use of technology and process. Given that innovation efficiencies come from local users this is paradoxically a recipe for inefficiency and waste.

At the end of the day skills and knowledge need to be located as close to where they are needed as possible. If local bodies need local skills to make efficient use of ICT and process then the skills need to be there.

"The number of data centres and associated support should be minimised."


"The shared hosting of common applications delivers ICT savings and central and regional plans open up ICT and other shared business process service opportunities. The existing clusters of nearly common applications should be built upon by selecting the best single application implementation and associated business processes and then from there achieve a reconciling of and agreement on common business processes so that the number of separately hosted instances can be rationalised and reduced."

The first sentence here is fine and good. Shared hosting of common applications is good and coordination at the regional level to encourage or even mandate the use of shared common applications may well be the right thing to do. Moving staff from using Microsoft Office to using would be a classic example of appropriate mandated change as long as all genuine technical data exchange issues had been addressed in advance. Of course such a change has a change management cost which must be costed.

However, as soon as there is talk of trying to merge 'nearly common' applications or business processes the line has almost certainly gone too far.

It is true that organisations may have different processes and procedures for historical reasons and there may be no reason for them to be different. If the end users who are familiar with everyday use of such systems recognise this, even reluctantly, then there is probably a strong argument for merging the processes as long as the costings recognise that there may be a significant 'investment' cost associated with implementing that change process.

Unfortunately one of the commonest reasons for so-called IT disasters in the public sector is the attempt to merge processes that seem (at a distance) to be the same, but are (on close examination) different for good reason. Often the historical reason why different organisations do things differently is that there is something genuinely different about what they do!

Changes in processes are often introduced locally as innovations to reduce cost and increase efficiency. Good reasons why changes in processes can bring local efficiencies include: co-location with other services; the shape of buildings and how long it takes to carry out tasks; office design; shared vs person printers; shared vs personal terminals/computers; and security implications of public access to buildings on logon procedures.

There is nothing worse on staff moral or fundamentally stupid than forcing staff to change a locally efficient process to an inefficient one in order to conform to a standard way of working!

"A framework of oversight and governance for each part of the public sector and at an overarching national level is critical."

Yes, but it should not add layers of bureaucracy or oversee ICT in isolation from other issues which are always interconnected.

However, there must be mechanisms in place to allow innovation from the users. In other words, there must be an open communication channel from users to those who can instigate change.

"Co-ordination of interaction with the ICT industry within each sector and at a national level is essential and will be beneficial."

Yes. There is opportunity for procurement savings by ensuring co-ordinated interaction with suppliers and service providers. It is essential that public bodies have skilled ICT representatives involved in those interactions to ensure that best value is being obtained. There may be a case for involving SMEs as independent ICT advisors in these situations as SMEs tend to be more aware of technological change than public sector ICT departments or large private sector suppliers.

"Relationships with suppliers should have a stronger partnership element."

What does this mean? Many historical suggestions of strong partnerships with the private sector have become costly and anti-competitive relationships which have benefitted the suppliers at the expense of the public sector.

The public sector needs to establish relationships with suppliers that leave the buyer with ongoing control and choice. One of the best ways of doing this would be to ensure that all software development for the public-sector was based on open standards, publicly owned and open-sourced from day one. This would put the supplier under appropriate public scrutiny and enable a poorly performing supplier to be swapped out in favour of an alternative supplier if required.

"It should not be a given that investment in and ownership of ICT assets and capability such as systems development is the norm and all avenues including investment avoidance and transaction / usage based charging should be pursued."

Scotland has a particularly poor history of choosing to do its own thing when something perfectly good is already available to purchase 'off the shelf'. This 'not invented here' syndrome is something that needs to be rectified particularly in the primary and secondary education sector where recognition of Scotland's different education system has to be balanced with a recognition of its similarities.

The rapid growth in cloud based services or 'apps' also means that there are large areas of ICT usage which could be satisfied by 'transaction / usage based charging' models.

However, where systems are developed specifically for the public sector it is very dangerous to do so under an agreement that gives ownership to the supplier and leaves the public paying on a transaction / usage basis. Any system developed specifically for the public sector should be owned by the public.

"Citizen services and data should be seamless and integrated across public sector and should specially address the needs of the elderly, sick and other vulnerable groups which cross organisational boundaries."

It shouldn't be necessary to warn of the mistakes of projects as recent as the NHS National Project for IT. But history shows that the public sector has repeated these mistakes over and over again.

We must not embark on producing any "seamlessly integrated" system across the public sector.

The recognised way to address this need is to establish well defined data standards and protocols for transacting data between systems. Wherever possible these standards should be open standards because we should not be re-inventing them and we should be trying to benefit from re-use of systems that already exist.

Thankfully the NHS in Scotland has largely taken this approach already.

"Most of the required ICT capability is specialised by sector yet there are vital national dimensions and cross-sector imperatives."

Yes and open standards for data sharing should be a big part of the mechanism for addressing this.

"Order of merit should be to first re-use, then buy and build only as a last resort. Existing initiatives and exemplars should be built upon and have their capabilities extended through free sharing with others."

Free sharing could be transformational on the public sector. But this should, wherever possible, be public sharing not just sharing privately between organisations.

Firstly, unless software used by the public sector is made publicly visible and accessible, organisations will find it hard, if not impossible to identify the opportunities for re-use.

Secondly, only through public sharing will the public sector benefit from the untapped resources of SMEs and crowd sourced public individuals.

Open sourcing public sector software massively lowers the barriers for competition from SMEs as it enables them to compete with incumbent providers and enables them to pro-actively offer services tailored specifically to the technical needs of the public sector.

"New technologies and concepts be pursued especially where they can reduce investment and support other efficiency and sustainability goals."

This is a good goal but the original 'strategies' above would all but prevent innovation and the use of new technologies.

"The negative impacts of and positive opportunities from effective ICT on the environment should be addressed and pursued."

Thankfully a focus on cost reduction in ICT tends to naturally deliver environmentally beneficial outcomes.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Shared ICT services are a recipe for holding back change

Today I've been reading John McClelland's report, "Review of ICT Infrastructure in the Public Sector in Scotland". Published by the Scottish government today, the work was started in 2010 at the request of the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth.

There's plenty to comment about in this report but I'll focus very briefly on one important point. But first a quote from the report:

"Shared deployment of ICT will reduce ICT cost and deliver savings in costs within individual public sector bodies. However, it can also, by being shared, provide a platform for additional efficiency and savings across multiple public bodies. The establishment of shared hosted information systems, commonly used across multiple organisations makes it very much easier to also share the resources and skills needed to operate other business processes. In this way shared ICT deployment unlocks the gate to shared services opportunities in other operations and processes." (section 4.2)

It is true that the sharing of flexible and completely industry standard infrastructure can help to reduce costs and reduce duplication.

Beyond that, organisations are not the same. So the sharing of services is not about sharing the same thing it's about making organisations work the same way whether it makes sense at the local level or it does not. The cost of making this massive organisational change may completely outweigh any apparent short term savings in ICT procurement. The long term process inefficiencies of forcing different organisations to work in the same way may introduce costs that also outweigh any ICT maintenance savings moving forward.

In short, there can be no assumption that shared deployment of ICT will reduce ICT cost.

The biggest problem

But the biggest problem with shared services seems to be the least understood:

Sharing services in the ways commonly understood in the public sector, lead to tight process dependencies between already huge government organisations. These dependencies, instead of helping to deliver change, actually act to constrain future change.

To put it simply. If you force two organisations to use the same core processes and the same central ICT system, then any future changes in process must be implemented in both organisations at the same time.

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