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« UK government business plan for improvement to procurement of ICT | Main | Indian group fuels UK public waste row »

"Big Society" and new Technology

The coalition government has embraced the philosophy of private "mutualisation" of socially beneficial activity. The press here has lampooned this as a cost saving exercise to get people to volunteer, and do it for them selves. The DIY society failed to undermine the basic thinking. Things like parents being able to take schools private or start new ones are on the agenda. The full extent of how radical the government could be, with new, privately financed social entities becoming a major feature in social provision, is not grasped. ( See and the discussion about the Venture Society for thinking on this and further thinking on mutualisation in co-operatives).   
This week the UK's CIO talked about 'mutualisation' as the way forward. We need to look at how mutualisation can be commercialised and will be developing an OCA position on this.
Such mutualisation is essentially a co-operative approach that requires a new way of working and the newer technologies that enable local involvement will need to be adopted.
The UK CIO's plan of record is to create a UK government Cloud or "G-Cloud" on a service oriented architecture together with an "apps store". This would in principle support increased localisation, but one component would be higher quality access and comms links.
The challenge has a number of dimensions: for example, to date, government purchasing has taken place on a departmental basis. In order to get cost savings and economies of scale, similar requirements need to be identified and purchased on a volume or other value for money/discounted basis for government as a whole. That tends to suggest centralised specification and purchasing. However, the starting point is problematic given that there is no central purchasing in UK government, and currently the UK government is characterised by departmental purchasing units, departmental financial control, and departmental processes and differing requirements by department.
Some cross departmental financial control is being introduced (for the first time: surprisingly this has never happened before because each department of state and each minster is constitutionally responsible to parliament). The new "Office of Budget Responsibility" might act as a financial controller, but the appointment of Alan Budd, a macroeconomist, is a sign that it may instead act as an economic forecaster.
In line with the conservative party manifesto, the CIO should get the power to mandate requirements. This will allow greater control of cross-government spend, and a Service Oriented Architecture is going to be introduced as part of the G-cloud strategy which should help drive value for money on a cross-government basis. "How?" is now the big unanswered question.
It is still unclear what interfaces and specifications will be used to define the gateways between the government SOA platform/cloud and the rest of the world. It is fine in theory for government to run an "apps store" but how government will specify how apps will run on proprietary hardware such as mainframes remains to be worked out.

We are looking to develop an OCA guide to how the specifications can be applied by contract managers in practice.
Neelie Kroes indicated in a speech in Brussels yesterday that interoperability between legacy technology and new services will be critical, and that legislation may be needed to force those with "pervasive" technology that locks-in government, to open up interfaces (Microsoft currently does this under its settlement with the Commission in December last year, but other computer companies are in the firing line).

Neelie is expected to launch a review of net neutrality here next week or the week after, with national consultation running over July and August.
So far, in the UK, spending has been suspended and any deal over a certain value has been placed under much closer scrutiny. There is a review of existing contracts taking place and the fact that in the past 2/3 years it became government practice to insert "termination for convenience" provisions in contracts has not been lost on suppliers, many of whom fear the axe.
Smart and coordinated specification could mean that smart government is possible. Increased interoperability may happen. Increased localisation may happen. Short term cost savings are easier to achieve if less complicated things are done, and we are taking no bets as to the outcome. 
Tim Cowen, OCA, 20 June 2010

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