Public Services > Central Government

GDS says tower model "not in line with government policy"

Neil Merrett Published 19 February 2015

Current disaggregation approach to procurement deemed not in line with government best practice, as suppliers question future for upcoming tower agreements


The Government Digital Service (GDS) said it does "not condone" the use of the tower model to procure ICT, claiming public sector bodies adopting the strategy are often failing to follow its best practice guidelines for service delivery.

"The tower model is not condoned and not in line with government policy," said Alex Holmes, deputy director and chief of staff in the office of the chief technology officer, in a post on the Government Technology blog.

"Government should use the best of what is already out there - not develop its own model."

In recent years a number of departments like the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) have opted to tender for a service tower operating model that splits its ICT needs into separate contracts like end user devices, networks, hosting, security and service integration and management (SIAM). The government itself began work on a document to outline a strategy for SIAM in 2012 in order to provide guidance on appointing lead suppliers or strategic partners to manage the different towers and effectively support day to day management.

Holmes said that the tower approach currently being undertaken by public sector organisations was not in line with GDS guidance on good IT, which calls on departments to take accountability for their own decisions on planning and implementing technology and digital services.

He added that with large parts of the Civil Service having previously completely outsourced their IT, the tower model was to have represented a "massive shift in technology approach".

However, Holmes claimed that a perceived fear of change in some organisations led departments to cling to the concept of outsourcing, while at the same time attempting to comply with multi-sourcing of IT needs to different suppliers.

"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," he said.

"The model has arisen because organisations 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."

Holmes claimed that organisations adopting the tower model in the belief they are following government policy and best practice guidelines, were "doing neither".

He pointed to the work undertaken by the Cabinet Office, Crown Commercial Service (CCS) and the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) to replace their respective IT services as a successful example of how multi-sourcing can deliver savings and transformative services.

"Multi-sourcing works because at its core is an understanding of user needs. The team responsible for the IT service knows what services are needed to currently deliver those needs," he said.

Holmes argued that the tower model approach had failed as it cannot fully consider services needed by a user, or how different technology fits together.

"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.

Holmes expressed concern that the tower model was creating situations where customers bought numerous incompatible parts for ICT, and then required a SIAM provider to bring them together and make them work.

"There can be a role for this Service Integration and Management (SIAM) layer, but placing too much responsibility with it increases risk for both the department and the supplier by confusing roles. The SIAM provider should not replace good in-house IT capability," he said.

John Jones, director of strategic sales architects, Landseer Partners, which works with a number of suppliers on bids, including on service towers and SIAM, said, "There are a couple of fundamental questions arising from this. Does this mean the end of disaggregation? And what does it mean for SIAM procurements that are currently in-flight, or coming down the track, such as Defra and HMRC? Would we expect the Cabinet Office to now step in and veto them?

"It also raises key issues of contract management. Government departments currently lack strong contract management skills. They just don't have them. Chunking up procurements into smaller service towers rather than giving it all to one outsourced vendor, at least gave departments the time to acquire contract management skills for the future. Where does that go now?"

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