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Public Sector IT: When It’s Big It’s Rarely Clever

This is a guest post by Tom Cheesewright, Communications Consultant and founder of IO Communications.

 

Public sector IT: as a taxpayer those words make me wince. As a supplier they make me run a mile.

For the last twelve years I’ve been involved in marketing technology products and services. That means keeping a close eye on the media that covers these areas. Though the media is less willing to trumpet good news stories than it is to shout about the bad, I have still been appalled at the ratio of failures to successes when it comes to public sector IT procurement. Whether it is for defence, education, health, welfare or transport, it doesn’t take long to find tales of massive overspending and completely failed projects. It’s the waste that makes me wince as a taxpayer.

As a sometime supplier of technology services to the public sector I am equally critical. You can call it sour grapes if you like, but my criticism comes from experience of the procurement process. The rigour that the public sector is forced to employ when selecting suppliers looks from the outside like a wonderful thing. In theory it creates a level playing field where the proposal with the most merit should succeed.

The reality is rarely so simple.

For a start, a process that creates the perception of openness is almost invariably highly bureaucratic. When I ran a digital agency it was not unknown for me to spend a day or more completing just the facts and figures piece of a bid to demonstrate our history in business etc. That’s before we had put any thought into the actual creative piece of the proposal. This could be for a project worth barely more than a couple of days work. Larger proposals might consume five or six days – or much more – each for two or three different people – especially if you are preparing a joint bid between suppliers.

Once you submit that bid one of two things generally happen in my experience: if the process is genuinely an open one, then the decision is often placed in the hands of the procurement department rather than anyone with a real understanding of the project. The result is that just one criterion usually leads to selection: price.

If the decision is in the hands of the originator, then I’m afraid to say the supplier was often selected long before the tender process began. I don’t blame the customer for this: they probably have a supplier that they know, like and trust and naturally want to work with them again. Unfortunately for all of the other suppliers though, they are forced to go through the pretence of an independent selection process and this costs the bidders dearly.

The combination of these two possible outcomes – losing to a larger supplier who can afford to go in low, and losing to a competitor who had won before the competition started – means that the work/reward ratio for the public sector is completely out of sync with the private. This rules out many of the smallest and potentially most innovative suppliers: after a year I stopped bidding for public sector work altogether – unless the project was already in the bag.

I’m not without hope. A number of initiatives in the public sector show how things could move forward. For a start the smarter organisations have understood that they are not obliged to create endless paper trails for smaller projects: that means rapid allocation of cash to the smaller projects most likely to be won by small providers. Sure it’s open to abuse, but no more than the current system, and probably does less harm to the losers.

There’s also evidence of reluctance to commission monolithic projects designed to solve every problem in one go. Rather – and this is purely anecdotal at the moment – the inclination seems to be towards defining standards and supporting local, progressive innovations. This openness extends beyond systems to data: I am all for the publishing of great swathes of public data so that others can innovate in the creation of applications for its access and manipulation.

I hope that initiatives such as these spread across the sector. There is no single answer for a challenge as large and complex as public sector IT strategy. But pragmatic steps appropriate to the problems on both the micro and the macro scale will hopefully minimise the sniping and griping from people like me in the future – and the damning headlines.

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