Whitehall In Shock: Government IT Spending Plans Working

g-cloud government westminster big ben © Shutterstock QQ7

Francis Maude doing a good job on reforming government IT, National Audit Office says

It’s rare for the government to receive praise for IT initiatives, yet today the National Audit Office said Coalition plans to cut IT spending are actually working.

The Cabinet Office has been leading the charge on government IT spending, after years of wasteful projects during the Labour years under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. And it appears to be winning fans.

The NAO said it even looked likely the government would exceed the targets it set out in October 2011. It found that in 2011-12, government spent an estimated £316 million less than it would otherwise have done without the changes to IT procurement.

Spiffing IT spending plans

It said 46 percent of the £316 million savings were long-term and therefore likely to occur every year for the foreseeable future.

The government claimed, in October 2012, it had saved £410 million from its savings initiatives in 2012-13, although the NAO was not able to confirm a claim that £348 million was saved in 2011-12, due to “weaknesses in data” at the Cabinet Office.

The Coalition said it expects to save an additional £200 million by the end of March 2013. That would mean it would have exceeded its £440 million savings target by April, when the 2012-2013 fiscal year comes to a close.

“The appointment by the Cabinet Office of commercial experts has helped departments to claw money back, renegotiate contracts before they expire and, overall, spend less on ICT than they otherwise would have done,” the NAO said in its report.

Five projects were investigated by the NAO, including ICT spend control where all ICT projects exceeding £5 million require approval from Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office.

It also praised the shared IT infrastructure push, enforcing common standards and shared services, enacted through projects like the Public Services Network.

Centralised IT procurement, where the Government Procurement Service negotiates on behalf of departments, was another area where the Cabinet Office was commended.

All this bonhomie hasn’t led to open complacency in the Cabinet Office, however. “Because ICT spending was so wasteful in the past, we also know that there is still a long way to go,” a Cabinet Office spokesman said.

“We must accelerate the pace of change. That’s why we are determined to fully open up government ICT to smaller, more innovative companies, and to embrace open source technology.

“As we reform the Civil Service, the government has committed to providing ‘digital-by-default’ services designed around the needs of the user, as set out in its Digital Strategy and the departmental digital strategies published at the end of last year.

“This April, the digitisation of the first wave of public services will begin, saving an estimated £1.2 billion by 2015.”

The NAO agreed more needed to be done. There has been no indication of how well government projects to attack the dominance of large IT vendors, noting it would be difficult for the Coalition to make changes where they were tied into lengthy contracts.

The government may have upset IT suppliers too. The NAO found vendors it spoke to in 2012 were less positive about their relationship with the government that they were in 2011, as they felt cost-cutting was taking too much precedence over innovation.

IT skills, or lack thereof, remain a problem across government departments. “The pace, breadth and depth of the change required by the Cabinet Office’s ICT reform initiatives is opening up capacity and capability gaps across central government,” the report read.

Another challenge lies in making useful services for the public, without spending too much. The Government Digital Service body is now in full throttle, as it looks to bring together Internet-based public services, and make them more accessible and efficient.

One of the biggest moves is the creation of the Identity Assurance Programme, which will let people use online identities, such as those associated with PayPal accounts, to access government services. This is to be implemented by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) for the Universal Credit benefit scheme being rolled out this year.

Strangely, there was no specific mention of the G-Cloud framework, despite it being one of the headline-makers of government IT reform.

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