Public Services > Central Government

UK government – setting IT trends?

Published 25 July 2017

BJSS managing consultant Kate Bassett says the public sector, once regarded as a follower, is now a trendsetter and, through its use of agile, open source and cloud, has leapfrogged the private sector


With fiscal restraint continuing to be applied across much of the public sector, and in a political environment where the continued merits of ‘austerity’ are being debated, IT transformation in the public sector is resulting in substantial cost-savings. For example, NHS Digital is delivering open source replacements for several large mission-critical IT systems.

This trend is apparent in other government agencies too. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), for example, has replaced its legacy Crisis Hub with an alternative based on open source, delivered by BJSS using an agile approach. 

This technical innovation has been driven by the Government’s support of open source solutions, agile delivery and cloud-based deployment. Cutting-edge and flexible technology platforms can be delivered quickly and at a fraction of the cost of commercial alternatives. In many cases, they deliver performance improvements too.

If agile is applied correctly - defining the architecture and tackling risk from the outset, and then testing the delivery at every stage of its journey - a “no surprises end game” is achievable.

This approach empowers decision makers in the organisation to make the right decision at the right time during an IT project. Agile makes it possible to keep a project on track and ensure it meets objectives, whilst delivering value.

In my own case, I am currently working with a large public sector client that has embarked on a key digital transformation programme, transitioning to a next-generation estate that will greatly improve service delivery.

As part of this engagement, we are introducing agile into an organisation that has never used it before, creating a fundamental shift in its delivery culture. Change on this scale can often be difficult, but the public sector embraces it because agility accelerates delivery, and through an on-going course of planning and feedback, ensures that value is maximised.

Public sector organisations are increasingly demonstrating that time and money can be saved by combining agile delivery with open source software. Meanwhile, the private sector, traditionally the technological innovator, has found itself hindered by an estate of large legacy systems based on proprietary software.

While the capital investment associated with rolling out proprietary platforms has prevented an exodus to open source until investments are amortised, critics have argued that open source lacks the reliability of commercial alternatives and contains security vulnerabilities, which expose businesses to significant and unnecessary risk. These risks are often overstated (often by the vendors of proprietary solutions, which have their own issues): the FCO’s open source, public cloud-based system was successfully accredited to Government “Impact Level 2” status on its first attempt.

NHS Digital’s Spine 2 and e-RS projects make extensive use of open source products and both have delivered significant savings and performance improvements. Spine 2 runs at a fraction of the delivery and operating cost of its predecessor, and handles 1,500 messages every second – nearly four times the number of UK debit and credit card transactions. Both solutions benefit from sgile and DevOps delivery approaches.

Users of commercial systems are tied to the vendor’s development process, their view of the market, pricing structure and roadmap. Licensing structures can be unnecessary complex and support arrangements often accompanied by hidden support charges. By its nature, proprietary lock-in hinders innovation.

By encouraging the adoption of agile and open source, the UK government has benefitted from technologies that outperform their commercial alternatives, while delivering dramatic cost-savings, without compromising reliability or security. Once considered to be a follower, the UK public sector is now very much the trendsetter. Government has leapfrogged the private sector.

Kate Bassett is managing consultant at BJSS


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