Time for some honesty about IT cost cutting

'Could it simply be that back office services and IT scream dull, dull, dull...?'

Britain's main political parties plan to slash IT spending across government - but they are tiptoeing around the biggest cost-saving option, says silicon.com's Nick Heath.

When it comes to government technology spending, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have broadly similar headline policies: swingeing cuts. But the reality is not as simple as they would like voters to think.

The cuts to IT spending being proposed by both Labour and the Conservatives would see close to one-quarter of the £16bn that the public sector spends on technology each year stripped away.

But while both parties plan to cut IT systems and staff within the public sector, both parties have sworn to protect frontline services - as if there were no link between the two.

Yet the idea that IT infrastructure can be hacked down to size with no impact on the services they support was put paid to just last week: CEO of NHS London, Ruth Carnall, revealed the impact of the government's decision to slash £112m from money set aside to revamp NHS IT in the capital.

As a result Carnall said it would no longer be possible to achieve the original aims of the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) to introduce a single standardised hospital system across London.

ballot box

The UK's three main political parties have set themselves a high bar in the manifestos for the 2010 general election
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

The episode shows the hefty price that organisations will pay if they ask their supplier to reduce the value of a project midway through its delivery. And there are plenty of projects like that under way in the public sector.

During the NHS' recent contract renegotiations with its IT suppliers, it was reported that for every £1 that was knocked off the value of their IT contracts the suppliers were demanding they no longer had to deliver £2-worth of services. So ultimately it is the client, in this case the taxpayer, that loses out.

Cutting IT spending is not as simple as turning off a tap - there are broader implications that the next government will have to wrestle with, which may well mean it is harder to bring down spending than they imagine. Of course some rationalisation is possible - shared services is a good example of that - but even rationalisation projects are likely to see more short-term spending to gain long-term savings.

The fact that both parties have released so few details on where exactly the axe will fall, makes it even more difficult for them to back up their claims that frontline services will be not adversely affected. Back office may be out of sight but it still does a vital job. And skimping could have a painful impact on the frontline services politicians wish to protect...