Government riddled with "unacceptable IT" says tech chief

One of the UK government's most senior IT bosses has said that government hasn't "come nearly far enough" in its battle against wasting money on technology.

"Unacceptable IT" is pervasive in the UK government according to Chris Chant, programme director for the G-Cloud project.

Government is still battling against a legacy of paying over the odds for unnecessarily bespoke IT systems and signing lengthy contracts weighted in the supplier's favour, Chant wrote on a civil service blog.

In the 30 years since government first developed in-house IT systems "we haven't come nearly far enough", said Chant, who will leave his position as programme director for G-Cloud at the end of April.

Chant has been instrumental in developing the government CloudStore, an online store where government bodies can buy software as a service, infrastructure as a service and platform as a service offerings from more than 250 companies.

Explaining the slow pace of change in government IT Chant said: "Real progress has been blocked by many things including an absence of capability in both departments and their suppliers, by a strong resistance to change, by the perverse incentives of contracts that mean its cheaper to pay service credits than to fix the problem and by an unwillingness to embrace the potential of newer and smaller players to offer status quo-busting ideas.

"CIOs across government, including me in various roles at the centre of government, have been guilty for too long of taking the easy path. We have done the unacceptable and thought we were doing a great job."

According to Chant these unacceptable practices include signing contracts with single suppliers that led to both poor service and high costs, a failure to use "innovative smaller suppliers", developing over-engineered and expensive purpose-built IT systems and using security as an excuse for outdated IT equipment in government.

"CIOs across government need to recognise what has changed and stop hiding behind the comfort blanket of what has always been done before," Chant said, adding that big suppliers "can no longer rely on delivering poor service for big money and get away with it".

The government has renegotiated contracts with all of its major suppliers, which delivered £800m of savings across suppliers and will deliver a further £140m.

Saying that government departments are "no longer going to have an easy ride" Chant says there will be pressure to break up large IT contracts into smaller pieces more suited to SMEs and services from the CloudStore and to design public services to be "digital by default", a shift that he says "will cause a wholesale upheaval in organisations across government".

To make it easier to for more small and medium sized companies to win government IT work the administration is limiting most tech contracts to no more than £100m and is making it easier for SMEs to meet with government. Future IT contracts will also include more frequent break points to allow government agencies to swap suppliers more easily.

Chant said there had been "real signs of change" in attitudes towards government IT over the past 18 months, praising public sector for no longer being willing to put up with poor service delivery, a move towards "customer-centric" delivery and a willingness to move away from being locked into long contracts with large suppliers.