Just 18 Months

Now that it’s out that Chris Chant is retiring a common phrase in articles is that he’s going after “just 18 months” running G-Cloud. It’s Chris’ style to leave quietly and, as I’ve known him, worked with him, and for him, for about a dozen years I thought I might recap some of the things he’s done, both in just 18 months as well as over the period I’ve known him.
G-Cloud has proved to be a hot topic in the world of government IT – and a little beyond – with attention increasing dramatically after Chris’ #unacceptable speech in October 2011. In this climate of openness, transparency, blogging and tweeting, I don’t think anyone has (ever) managed to be quite as open, provocative and engaging – nor respond to as many comments, articles, opinions and analyst reports – on as Chris has. He will be a hard act to follow. 
Some have already claimed, or at least thought, that he was only as open as he was because he knew he was going – and those same people usually refer to his twitter handle (@cantwaitogo) as evidence of that. I know they’re wrong – Chris has always been as open as he is now, it’s just that he has been able to take advantage of new channels recently to ensure the message gets out more widely. His twitter handle shows only that his spelling is as questionable as ever and refers to some volunteer work that he did at Ambue Ari (hence his leopard profile picture – apparently the Mario pictures were all copyrighted).  If anything, his post-retirement twitter handle, rather than being @gone, will be @cantwaitogoback.
In the just 18 months Chris ran G-Cloud he managed to design, develop and launch an entirely new approach within government procurement, aided only by a tiny team from departments and the Government Procurement Service, most of whom had day jobs as well. G-Cloud plainly leads the world in its thinking and its action. The second iteration, due in the next couple of weeks, will further extend that lead and provide a more flexible procurement platform whilst making it simple for those on the existing framework to transition.  In a while, we will look back and see 2012 as a pivotal year in the evolution of government IT, even though the changes orchestrated now will take some time to bed in.
But before there was even a procurement vehicle, Chris had to galvanise the inevitably disparate parts of government to want such a thing – a truly open, transparent, everything published and visible to all procurement catalogue. He had to bring people together to think about how it might work, get funding, get support from permanent secretaries and ministers, convince people to become foundation delivery partners, work with suppliers to shape it, persuade lawyers and commercial people to accept a radically slimmed down approach, convince SMEs to play a major part (70% of those on the framework are SMEs), figure out how to publish all supplier information (including prices – a first time ever), persuade people that rating suppliers not only made sense but was absolutely necessary and present endlessly to audiences inside and outside of government to help get the message over. On top of that he had to fight to convince those who said it couldn’t be done, that suppliers wouldn’t sign up for it and that customers wouldn’t buy from it. Creating change in government has never been easy and G-Cloud shows that, whilst that is still true, it can be done but that it takes enormous effort, huge commitment from a small number of individuals and relentless focus.
Alongside that Chris was breaking the mould in other areas – introducing public cloud email into the Cabinet Office (their first taste of their own dog food I am sure) and switching people away from expensive government standard devices to far cheaper off the shelf devices (showing an 80% cost saving). He also laid the groundwork for an entirely new approach to government web delivery by kicking off what became known as Alpha.gov and that will result in direct.gov being replaced a year or less from now.  Somewhere on this path he managed to become the 17th most influential person in UK IT (more to his own surprise than that of anyone else I’m sure).
When I first met Chris he was a tax man- not a career IT guy as some have said (actually Chris knows as much about IT as the average dormouse – something that has certainly counted in his favour as he sought simpler and simpler solutions). He went from there to delivering online transactions at the Inland Revenue (now HMRC) including PAYE the first time, upgrades to Self Assessment, Corporation Tax and so on. Since 2001, HMRC has had by far the largest take up of online transactions across government – they were the first to try out incentives (few will remember, perhaps, the £10 rebate for filing your Self Assessment online), the first to move to mandation (after the Carter report) and will likely be the first to get 100% take up if not already, then very soon. Chris also worked on or ran direct.gov.uk and a dozen other government websites as well as the the government gateway.  
In other roles, Chris has switched departments from 100% desktop to 100% laptop so allowing remote working and a reduction in carbon footprint, rolled out collaboration tools to support joint working, assured technology for the Olympics and many other things, not to mention loitered outside fish and chip shops counting the sacks of potatoes being delivered so that he could estimate sales and so, in turn, figure out how much tax the owner really should have been paying – them’s proper metrics them is.
And, along the way, he has routinely regaled his friends, colleagues, customers and suppliers with endless tall tales, mostly crap jokes, comments about the poor quality of football at Arsenal (and the significantly better quality at Tottenham), infectious enthusiasm for the latest gadgets (from ‘phones to cameras to televisions and beyond) and, until he switched to eating only carrots, was one of the finer dinner companions in the UK – certainly higher than the 17th most influential dinner companion in the UK I believe.  Not every day was a blast with Chris and he didn’t get everything right, but I’m hard pressed to remember the bad ones amongst the torrent of good ones.
If only others could accomplish as much in such a period as Chris has managed to, in just 18 months.  As wiser folks than me have said, success has 1000 fathers (and failure is an utter b*stard).   Chris will be missed by many though doubtless some, particularly those who were on the receiving end of some of his more explosive blasts, will be pleased that he’s gone, hoping that the cloud will become what they always thought it was, vapour.  It won’t.
I’m sure the world of Government IT will be a slightly quieter place come the beginning of May, but I am confident that few of the changes Chris has kicked off will be unwound. And some will be reinforced even more strongly by the tiny team with the day jobs – they’re still there and will be working just as hard to support Chris’ successor, Denise McDonagh.

Ages of e-Government

Pre-Envoyian, also known as CeCeTAcian … characterised by rapid activity amongst many life forms, mostly concentrated in two strata, Norfolk’s Broads and Upper Whitehall.  Significant invention and development of new technologies.

Citucene … period of outlandish creativity amongst new lifeforms and the launch of entirely new streams of life along with the first exchanges of information between lifeforms across something akin to telepathy known as GSI.

Neo-Envoyian … a quieter period of calm reflection and preparation for renewed growth.  Early indications of polices on digital lifeforms and how they might interact in the future digital age.

Envoyian … a lengthy period characterised by a focus on achieving targets for growth and interaction, many thousands of new website lifeforms emerged many of which would be relatively short-lived.  Also a period of invention and development of new technologies and, for the first time, co-operation between the various species found across government.  Much of the activity was in a previously little known part of the planet known as Victoria.

Unitiferous … an age of consolidation as the website lifeforms previously created began to decay (their fossilised remains can sometimes be seen in a special preservation area near Kew).  Also saw the emergence of new attempts to control future lifeform development as the more powerful denizens of the age came together for the first time.

CIOzoic … a sustained period of little change though filled with occasional bursts of life that often escaped into the wild uncontrolled and eventually contained only after great expense.   The period of decay from the earlier age continued during the CIOzoic.

Brackonian … only just beginning and appears to be similar to the Envoyian age with the rapid emergence of many new technologies that iterate quickly and take on new forms almost faster than anyone can identify.  This could be an age where all user lifeforms experience great beauty … or the rapid profusion could result in difficulties sustaining life later.  A new area has been colonised for this experiment, known as Holborn.

ICT Futures for non-ICT deals?

Liam Maxwell’s ICT Futures team are, as far as can be seen, getting properly stuck into IT deals.  But who is going to look at the other deals going on in government?

1) Frameworks are being generated across every part of government.  Central government has its PSN, G-Cloud, commodity (known, I think, as Achilles) and according to the GPS site there are more to come and, whilst these deals are set up for the entire public sector to use, there are still other frameworks being generated including regional and local PSNs, NHS frameworks and also frameworks within departments themselves.  And then there’s the overlap between frameworks, such as PSN and G-Cloud both offering, for instance, e-mail. Pretty soon suppliers will have a choice of three dozen routes to market for any given deal yet will have little in the way of business to show for their hard efforts.  After all, getting on to a framework isn’t free – far from it in many cases.  There needs to be a charge to rationalise all of the frameworks, eliminate overlap and ensure that everyone knows where to go to buy what they need, rather than have them think that what they need is yet another framework.

2) BPO deals are shortly to become common place, I suspect, as departments move their attention away from the apparently “easy to count” (the PASC might disagree) world of IT to the more complicated world of business process.  Whilst IT costs anywhere from £13bn-£25bn a year depending on who you listen to, government’s spend on its core business may soon be up for grabs – and that annual spend could easily reach £100bn-200bn (again, depending on who you listen to).  Figuring out what is and isn’t a good deal for these will be a complicated process.  We need a BPO futures team to look across the public sector, starting in the centre perhaps, to see how these deals are being structured and what needs to be in place to help prevent poor deals being done, ensure lessons are learned and that service improves as a result.

So John Collington is doubtless the Liam Maxwell of “Framework Futures” though he’ll want to get moving and put the “hairdryer treatment” on all those setting up their own frameworks in competition with his own.

But who is going to be the BPO Futures lead? The person who reviews business outsource deals to make sure that they make sense and are in line with the overall strategy?

Reinventing Government IT – #G-Cloud

“On hot sunny days please wait for your ticket to drop down. There are problems with static! Thank you for your patience”

There was a time when, had this been a Government IT project, the requirements would have contained provision for how this device should be modified to ensure that it operated on such hot, sunny days.  That modification would have cost millions and would have been deployed just as the UK entered a phase when the summer temperature didn’t exceed 20C for years.  That time was no more than a year ago.
Things are different now.  Now we’re content with workarounds and products that do 80% of what is needed with no customisation.
Bring on gCloud. 
(This photo is from a car park ticket machine in Wells, Somerset.  Taken on 6th April 2012)

Banking Web Delivery 2012 #fail

I hold accounts with two different banks.  One chose this weekend to carry out a four day upgrade of its IT – from Friday 30th through Monday 2nd. Four days turned into five as “teething troubles” meant the service didn’t actually come back on time.  Today it’s working but it has my account history only since the 1st April in it – prior data will apparently “be applied over the coming weeks” until I eventually have a 6 year record.

The trouble is, it’s the end of the tax year this week.  What kind of numpty would figure that the best time to carry out a major upgrade of a bank’s customer-facing IT systems is just before the financial year end when people are doubtless trying to top up ISAs, move money into pensions, pay out salaries, reclaim expenses and so on?  I’m sure that there’s no good time, but year end must be the daftest.

Funny thing is that every April, HMRC carry out a series of major releases around this time, in preparation for the new tax year.  We rarely hear about these, partly because they’re mostly back office systems but mostly because they’re very good at it and have few failures.  So major upgrades can be done at this time of year but it helps to practice.

The second bank rolled out its own major upgrade in March after some months of beta testing (I declined to participate – the idea of beta testing moving money around just didn’t grasp me as a great idea).

The result is an awful website that has gone from usable with some trouble to almost completely unusable.  It’s the basics – not allowing a date format of “30/3/12” to be entered and insisting on “30/03/2012” for instance; or, here’s another, if I want to transfer £100, why make me enter £100.00 before you’ll make the transfer?  Tasks that use to be one click away are now buried in dynamic menus that pop up and disappear as you move the mouse across the screen.

Two different banks, neither owned by the taxpayer, but both failing to deliver in entirely different ways.  And, of course, none of them are being open and out loud about it.

We all find it easy to spot government IT failures – and ensure that they get massive coverage – but let’s remember that there are plenty of private sector failures that just drift by us without getting the same scrutiny, even now.

Capita And The Fallacy Of Offshore

The IT news media carried stories this week that Capita is to lay off an expected 1,000 staff (other sources say only 400) and move their jobs to India.  These are all jobs Capita’s IT Services division (the one that managed to put forward more than 200 products, out of 1700 odd total, on the G-Cloud framework).

They’re certainly late to the party as TechMarketView pointed out.  They may even be too late.  I worked for an organisation that moved much of its IT development to India in the early 90s, and by 1992 their team there were assessed as CMM Level 5 (which, I appreciate, doesn’t mean the output is good, just that the processes are highly repeatable – so plenty of potential for highly repeatable rubbish).  In 2001 I moved some UK government work offshore – I think we were probably the first to do it then, but others have followed since – we used it mostly for burst capacity (when we didn’t have the capacity locally and needed only very short term work to be carried out) but we also did some IT development.

In 2001/2 I advised some companies that said that they were struggling to attract and retain staff what I had learned in the 90s.  I suggested that competing with the local majors – Wipro, Tata, Infosys etc just as much then as now – would be challenging as people would be naturally attracted to home grown brand (one solution I proposed was to do a dual-listing on the Indian stock market and start presenting a carefully cultivated local image) – but that the bigger problem would be the inevitably high staff turnover.

In moving work offshore – not just India but any perceived low cost economy – before I’d quickly seen that if you are first, you enjoy the pick of the people and you get the lowest rates – but just as anomalies close in the stock market – everyone else discovers this same opportunity and competition for resource increases.  Soon you are paying more and your staff are, anyway, leaving for just a thousand pounds or more a year – when the base salary is £10,000, moving for £11,000 can be an easy decision.  Turnover rates can quickly reach 20% and even 40% or more – with the worst rates being in the relatively lower skilled jobs.  Your costs go up both directly – salaries – and indirectly – replacing lost skills over and over again.   Local brands have shown that they can manage this attrition better than foreign brands but not always.

I don’t know that the economies are really there in cost terms now.  I’d be surprised if they are as obvious as they once were certainly – especially when you offset redundancy costs from the UK, transition costs, the need to maintain a mixed team, turnover, travel and so on.  Once the cost economies are gone – and I think they finished in 2002 or maybe 2003 – the real benefit comes in being able to use your offshore capability as a kind of “service delivery cloud.”  By that I mean if your work comes in irregular peaks and troughs, you use offshore resource to allow you to quickly stand up a set of trained, smart people – and then you move them on to something else when the peak moves on.  But you’d probably be better off partnering in doing that, giving up the few points of margin in return for not needing to manage the whole process.

So 20 years after it became popular, have Capita latched on to a trend that has already moved on?  Are they the last one buying into the idea of a January rally?  I think they probably are.  Chasing the low cost option means being very quick on your feet and opening new operations regularly as market anomalies open and close – it can also mean being ready to move work back to the UK because you have capacity or capability there (or, in this climate, because it turns out it is actually the lowest cost environment, either in direct labour costs or in costs measured against quality of service). Capita already operate services – particularly BPO – overseas so they will know all of this.

In a market where the UK government says that they want to use more SMEs, they want to give business to companies that pay tax in the UK, where unemployment is increasing and where quality of service is an important consideration in evaluations, I think they may not know it deeply enough.