Public Services > Central Government

GaaP: it's not just about the platform

Published 26 May 2015

When considering government ICT for the next five years, remember GaaP, procurement and legacy are all linked, argue Methods' Group chief executive Peter Rowlins and strategy director Mark Thompson


Direction of travel

The direction of travel for Government ICT is certainly much clearer today than it was five years ago immediately post-election. A great deal of work has been done to set a completely different agenda and much of the credit must go to the Cabinet Office and in particular Francis Maude who has understood the issues and acted, in some cases, very boldly. We have also had clear leadership often in the face of adversity from Liam Maxwell and Mike Bracken. Let's hope the new ministerial team in place will develop the required understanding of the real issues, and have a similar commitment to change and innovation in the way that government ICT is delivered.

The establishment of the Government Digital Service (GDS) has certainly been a game changer, and whether you agree with what they are doing or have done, they certainly are having a very different dialogue with their public sector colleagues and also the supplier community for the future. Their exemplars programme is high-profile and some real successes have been achieved. The really tricky work now starts. GDS has shown the ability to make significant improvements in the user experience, with clear simple design - but the much more complex task still to come is sorting out the back end legacy. They are also grappling with Government as a Platform (GaaP), but do we really know what Gaap is?

Government as a Platform - the vision for the future

Achieving the next steps is now about the real vision for digital government and being clear what GaaP is and how it can start to be implemented. As a supplier committed to open standards, Methods' view is that in general, government shouldn't 'do' technology - it will never be able to out-think and out-invest technologists - but it absolutely needs to take responsibility for understanding how technology is changing the landscape of public services forever.

Let's explain our vision on GaaP....

Imagine that you held shares in a global multinational with, say, 10,000 offices around the world - and you discovered that each of those offices was being run as if it was owned by different shareholders: competing, and duplicating - even jealously guarding - their own capabilities, intelligence, infrastructure, resources, and personalised operating models. You would quite naturally demand that they work together. This is of course how our public service organisations are currently co-ordinated.

The answer must be to require our government to acquire rapid literacy in digital as a business model - not as a (government-built) technology. Digital businesses exploit shared web-based infrastructure to organise themselves, and do things, differently: they are willing to deverticalise, consume common stuff from the supply chain wherever appropriate, and focus instead on brokering supply and demand in effective, flexible, and always-on ways. Government has an incredible opportunity to do this -to be a 'platform entrepreneur' - because it currently consumes so much potentially standard stuff in so many, crazily duplicated ways. Put another way, it's uniquely placed to standardise, consolidate and commoditise its demand side - making potentially colossal savings. That is what we see as GaaP.

In Methods' view, the number one priority for the new government should therefore be to start right there: standardise, consolidate, and commoditise. Shared web-based infrastructure is the key to digital platform entrepreneurialism for any government. Start with the commodity tech, and then work up the stack, towards the common business rules. Digital business is about open standards over shared infrastructure, not about technology per se (the tech comes and goes). Focusing a bit less on technology, and more on standards, is the most 'digital' thing the new government can do. Faced with progressive adoption of open standards over shared infrastructure, the silos will come tumbling down by themselves.

The next challenge: procurement - a key enabler

As an organisation with over 20 year's experience of supplying to government, we see procurement as the biggest single barrier to getting this done. The practice of running competitions for a single large supplier to run all ICT once every seven or ten years has been shown up as bad strategic and commercial sense. The Parliamentary Report "Recipe for Rip-offs" (2012) clearly explained that the single supplier systems integrator approach had major, very expensive flaws and delivered poor outcomes and poor value for customers.

We now live in a very dynamic ICT environment, with new capabilities and more innovative services appearing all the time from a very wide range of companies, large and small. The Cabinet Office needs to take advantage of these - trialling, testing, and introducing business and technical change iteratively and in small chunks, using a diverse, genuinely competitive supplier community. The G-Cloud procurement model has been shown to deliver this more competitive marketplace for government ICT, and should be rolled out across a far wider range of services. It's flexible, open, inclusive and provides market access to a much wider range of organisations than ever before. SMEs in particular are an essential part of the supplier mix and often the real leads on innovation and can be very disruptive in a positive way. True, G-Cloud has its flaws - but the majority of clients and suppliers are very keen advocates. Let the G-Cloud concept proliferate in all aspects of public sector procurement, not just ICT.

Lifting and shifting from the legacy contracts

Many monolothic central government system integrator contracts are ending within the next three years. However, developing - and communicating - a clear direction for the future has been a real challenge for the larger departments. The SIAM discussion/argument is a prime example. Unsurprisingly, incumbent suppliers haven't always been keen advocates of a new multi-supplier market and have at times appeared keen to overplay the risks of change to government - think turkeys and Christmas.

Have all the major departments developed the in-house skills and expertise to chart the way forward by themselves? This has to be a key challenge for the new Cabinet Office team to ensure that the public sector is able to re-build the internal intelligent customer and architectural skills needed to enable a sensible and ordered migration away from the legacy environments, some of which have a forty year heritage. As John Manzoni stated recently, the vision and capability to enable change is required centrally and in the wider departments and arm's length bodies.

The scale of the challenge does mean that these transitions are complex, but the opportunity to make a substantive change must be taken. The public finances have a further five years of downward pressure, but the opportunity and timing is right to make the jump from an analogue, hand cranked, and highly bespoke world of creaking technologies, many very much past their sell by date, into a new, cheaper, and simpler world of (standards driven) commodity technology that can deliver so much more for a great deal less. There is some bravery required. However, the right leadership and direction from the Cabinet Office will be essential in supporting this move, in particular in taking those first essential steps towards articulating the standards for GaaP, so that the foundations for a more open, genuinely digitally-enabled public service model can be put in place for the next ten years.

GaaP, procurement, and legacy: they're all linked

The important insight is that all these three critical concerns are closely interlinked. Implementation of GaaP isn't about government just consolidating public sector tech into 'platforms'; it's about moving to a much more diverse, platform-ecosystem based operating model for public services. Such a model will 'disrupt' traditional silos within government and its (still) preferred mega-suppliers; in other words, the entrenched operating model within Whitehall. Standardising wherever possible on vanilla business process, consumed from the cloud, will usher in dynamic, ever-evolving and agile matching of supply with demand across the public sector. Within this 'disrupted' model, senior public servants will no longer be able to justify handing multi-billion contracts to organisations whose business development directors hold security passes at Parliament. 'Outsourcing' - freezing your operating model for 10 years and handing the keys to a supplier to run your business for you - will become a symbol of conspicuous failure of weak public management. Legacy dependency will be progressively reduced.

In other words, 'digital' government can never come from the centre, because too many senior mandarins in Whitehall either remain unaware of the full implications of the internet for their businesses (and favourite suppliers; for a list of these just look at top five by revenue) - or, when the full implications of cloud begin to dawn, will resist them tooth and nail. The sooner the new administration engages with and gets behind, web-enabled digital politics, the better.







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