back to article Councils look for 'good enough' IT solutions

IT departments in local government are moving towards minimising their costs in response to the spending cuts, according to a new report from Socitm. The annual IT Trends in Local Public Services report from the public sector IT organisation, published on 20 January, says that IT teams are having to cope with further …

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  1. Chris Miller
    FAIL

    Just askin'

    It sounds as though local authorities have been paying extra for IT solutions that exceeded their needs. Why?

    1. riparian zone
      Big Brother

      scratching the same backs..

      that big gov use, maybe...the 'trusted vendors' that charge huuuge amounts, exceed deadlines, then fail with a capital F...think Fujistsu, IBM.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Big Brother

      it's all about the contracts...

      If a contract is for a certain amount, it must go out to tender, and all the tendering companies that "specialise" in software for LAs circle like sharks. It's a legal requirement which in theory stops LAs from farming work out to their own spotty 15 year olds for coding.

      Add to that the fact that LAs have outsourced much of their IT to wonderous people like CapGemini, who have to write the specification documents for pretty much everything. Of course, they overspecify so that it pads the contract, and now everyone gets to dip their beak.

      AC and Big Brother as I may or may not be working for a council (check back on Monday...)

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      How to sell to the public sector

      "It sounds as though local authorities have been paying extra for IT solutions that exceeded their needs. Why?"

      Selling into the public sector can be summed up like so:

      Cultivate a friendly contact with bugetary reponsibilities within the organisation you are trying to tap, hang around until you get wind of a project coming up. Your friendly contact will ask you and other competitors he is "friendly" with, how much it is likely going to cost so that he can request/put it in for his budget.

      Inflate the price by at least 100% (as will your competitors) and when the project goes out to tender, weasel an indication of how much your competitors are tendering at. Try and undercut your competitors but bear in mind everyone will be doing the same. Whether you win the contract or not, the tender price would have been inflated by some horrendous amount. Private company 1 : Tax payers 0.

      This is why.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Stop

      Can't say no to the staff

      A user asks for something special because their case is totally unique. Just like everyone else's. If they don't get it they claim they are "stressed". The union gets involved. IT dept backs down. Budget gets spent so budget gets increased next year. IT dept secretly pleased.

  2. hplasm
    Gates Horns

    Save cash-

    get off the Microsoft upgrade carousel.

  3. riparian zone
    Unhappy

    People make problems, IT only highlights them - reflection is soo 18th century.

    Before I was made redundant by a London borough council, monies were already being taken away. The council website was built on a old and clunky MS CMS, the intranet was basically a cludge of web pages made in Word. The guy in charge of all of this was so up his own arse you could hear the echo of his intestines when he talked - he was convinced of his technical know how, and so sure of his position. People with an agenda that isn't public service: the big problem, not the lack of IT and money. Another reason why any council 'officers' earning 50k+ should be taken outside and kicked up the arse back to their home(which is likely to be in another borough) by every passer by. After getting the push, of course.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Big Brother

      Hey! You too?!?

      Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. Problem is that when somebody yells "we have to make people redundant to save money", they rarely ever address the bastards at the top.

  4. andrewtayloruk
    Welcome

    The problem is the duplication of efforts

    The problem is not the buying of what they don't need; it's the 400+ councils countrywide that duplicate each others efforts time and time again. 80% of council provided functions are provided by every council in the country; they don't buy a single solution, they all go out and buy the same solution provided by the same supplier.

    Whitehall should decide what software is required and invest the money in an open-source solution; the hundreds of million in savings can be invested back in genuinely delivering some value from an IT project.

    Desktop OS and office solution is a quick win, just do a deal with MS to cover every council in the country. Why should each council have a 1000 seats when Whitehall could just buy a million at a greatly reduced cost (in pennies and time and body count).

    Andrew

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Big Brother

      Sorry, but no

      One of the biggest problems that councils face at the moment is that Whitehall is already making things difficult by prescribing what councils can or cannot do which is adding to the workload and the cost thereof. In many cases, Whitehall makes these decisions based on its own expertise and rarely seems to consider how this will affect the services at the sharp end.

      Let's face it; one example is the way in which Whitehall jumped into bed with Microsoft over the years, killing any attempt at finding a cost effective solution on a local level. They only started making noises about allowing councils to dabble in the open source field when they realised that the money was running out on multiple levels. Before we start looking to HMG for software guidance, we need to break everyone of the habit of backing the Merkans in everything.

    2. PsychicMonkey
      Stop

      I can only assume

      the person who down voted this works for one of the big suppliers ad doesn't want to remove their nose from the trough!

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Thats what the NHS does

      They have a million + license for Microsoft software

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Thats what the NHS Did

        The NHS did have an agreement, they don't any more.

        The licenses that were procured are being signed over to each Trust/PCT etc.

        From a distance this seems like a billion saved, but now all the trusts now have to procure Windows, Office, and CALs for every new PC and manage all their licenses lcoally.

        This is going to end up costing a lot more than a Billion, it's such a massive retrogade step

      2. Giles Jones Gold badge

        Not any more

        Not any more, that deal expired.

        http://www.channelregister.co.uk/2010/07/15/nhs_microsoft/

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Happy

      RE: The problem is the duplication of efforts

      The answer to that is yes and no

      Some functions are exact duplications e.g. Payroll HR, etc.

      However, for example, whilst all planning authorities have a set of minimum requirements, one authority may decide it wants a "rolls royce" solution, when it's neighbour goes for a bare bones solution. (e.g. do we just notify everybody within 50m of the new office block/shop, or do we tell everybody in half a mile)

      This latter is called democratic accountability, if you are pissed off about not knowing about the sex shop that got planning permission at the end of your road (51m away), then you vote for the councilor who wants your council to go for the consult everybody system, if however you want lower council tax, you vote for the guy who insists on bare bones, to the letter of the law only, systems.

      The country could save a lot tax money by central government dictating how local services are to be delivered, and buying one system to do it all, however at that point local elections become meaningless, which IMHO would be a pity, as local councillors are the only ones where the voters count (you go an see a councillor with your neighbours and watch them jump for you!), MPs usually don't give a damn as they get elected based on the colour of their rossette.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Down

      Exploit government's size

      Central government should negotiate centrally for all local authorities for 'core' products.

      Currently there's little economy of scale and a huge duplication of effort as each authority repeats the same tendering exercise over the country. The suppliers know and exploit this.

  5. Jacqui

    duplicated effort

    We used to do work for some housing trusts - many of which used a common commercial package. We were asked if we would be interested in provding (paid) support and development if the user group bought out the supplier...

    We were very interested, but the deal fell through as someone else bought the failing business.

    I do not see why the same economies of scale could not be applied to sofwtare used by councils across the country. The only downside would be increased reliability and no jollies/bungs from suppliers. I find it is impossible to convince a local .gov "head of IT" to consider software that will reduce support/staffing levels as it will reduce his/her budget.

  6. The Cube
    Thumb Up

    About time

    A long time ago most corporate users (banks excluded of course) lost the luxury of being able to say "I want I want I want" and demanding a custom solution because they were "special". It didn't take that long for the finance and business management to realise that the additional costs and time delays of a custom "solution" more than made up for any theoretical benefit. With few exceptions the speed of deployment, stability and cost competition of the commodity solution wins by a huge margin.

    The purchasing behaviour can only be understood by seeing that local government suffers from three serious problems;

    1) The CIO doesn't want to outsource all his / her staff and have a department of 3 people, they are building a career and in goverment that is measured by how many minions you have

    2) The departments exist in a culture of thinking they are special and not like any other users, of course when it comes to specifying how the custom "solution" needs to work they can't explain it and then fall into the trap of changing the specification halfway through so they can't sue the outsourcer when it still doesn't work 5 years and £millions later

    3) The leeching consultants and outsourcers (we all know who they are) have worked tirelessly to support these misconceptions and stuff their pockets with taxpayers money

    The first thing government should do is ban any taxpayer funded authority from building its own data centre, especially all those London boroughs who all build two, one for "Disaster Recovery" and can't even share with neighbouring boroughs in case it undermines their petty little empires.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Downgrading thresholds

    From now on, only quotes judged "outrageous" will be commited to the budget, down from the previous level of "obscene".

    "Bargain" is still out of order, so if you are homeless carrying a cardboard sign reading "will code for food", please rephrease it to "will code for £50K pa + expenses" for your application to be considered.

  8. Pete 2 Silver badge

    The real question

    This is where we start to find out if the local councils can tell the difference between what's necessary and what's a luxury. When they start to cut, or reduce their specifications, will they accidentally omit crucial components from their requirements. You know: obviously unnecessary things like 60-inch plasma displays for the control room, redundant and diverse network cabling, backups, aeron chairs and staff training.

    1. Chika
      Coffee/keyboard

      Icon says it all!

      Damn! :)

  9. Mark 65

    Wow

    It only took utter fiscal devastation and the near bankrupting of the country and all in it for common sense to finally prevail. Why wouldn't they look for a "good enough" solution in the first place rather than something highly bespoke? It's not like they're in an IT arms-race, only a pissing contest with neighbouring authorities.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      > Good enough...

      You've got to wonder WTF these people at SOCITM have been for the last twenty years. I understand it may have been different in Labour voting areas where central government grants are way higher, but down here in the Tory south "good enough" is exactly what we've been doing for the last umpteen years... In fact most of the time its more "not really good enough but its all we can afford" which is not necessarily the most efficient way to run any organisation...

  10. Adam 61

    Tenders etc

    I help respond to many public sector tenders and without fail the majority are some of the most badly written pieces of work you can find out there. The lack of information available to enable suppliers to give a half decent solution is frustrating even when you do seek clarification.

    Quite often you can see they are like a kid in the sweetshop - must have this feature, must have that feature etc, but with no actual understanding of how they can use that in their environment to derive any benefit or the wider impacts it may have in their environment.

    Its also patently obvious when vendors have "helped" write the tenders, often including criteria that have absolutely no relevance to the real requirement and just adding costly and expensive featuresets.

    Also the use of framework agreements like Buying Solutions (oh the irony) mean that your opportunity to add value as a supplier is greatly diminished as you get discounted if you deviate from the exact way things have been laid out, regardless of whether it may be a better way of doing things (a matter of opinion, but the lack of avenues to even have a conversation about it is wrong)

    All this contributes in my view to LA's getting poor value for money and a lot of wasted money being spent.

  11. BozNZ
    WTF?

    Lots of truisms here

    Did a fixed term IT Manager contract back in the good ol' 90's and most of the whingers here ring true.

    1. Suppliers exploit weak management to get lock in and overcharge

    2. The person at the top of the IT pile is generally appointed by councillers who have "an interest in IT" eg they have a PC (dont laugh, I did apply for the permantent top job at the end of my contract - only 2 yrs because council was going to unitary authority - and even though I had reduced costs managed a solid team (and one wanker) and had proper qualifications the job was appointed to the IT Manager from the bigger authority who had no qualifications but "was more experienced" - WTF!)

    3. Unseating crap people is impossible and the rest of the team have to carry their workload

    4. Sick leave and flexi times are abused to death

    5. Skilled IT workers generally move on once they have trained up

    6. Each council has its own IT solution, they should look at all the current ones and pick two or three that are open and will scale and run with those, it would save billions

    7. Ditto with licencing, a large proportion of the budget to goes to microsoft, FUD is endemic!

    I could go on but I dont live in the UK anymore and dont give a toss!

    Thanks for listenening

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The forgotten issue

    ..... Just about every big public sector IT project since the eighties has suffered from something that seems thus far to have been mentioned very seldom.

    Mission creep and scope creep - It's not unusual for managers to load more features and extend scope on an almost daily basis, as they all try to put their stamp on projects. The bigger the project, the more the contractors stand to make, hence projects that should have been relatively simple to implement in coding terms, have been spun out so long that it has exposed another problem.....

    By the time the project is ready for roll out, the hardware that was committed to and probably purchased early on, has become obsolescent at best, with spares becoming ever more scarce, and of course, hideously over priced.

    All of the above then becomes further complicated when the platform, undoubtedly MS, selected at the beginning of the project drops off the end of official support.

    Result - paying fabulous amounts of money for code compromised by the machinations of every mid manager to touch the project, running on hardware that can't be maintained or needs replacement/rewrite to run on currently available equipment.

    The flaws in procurement on these mega projects are well documented, and have made a lot of contractors and many managers who jumped ship to join the contractors rich. Oddly enough though, I have seen a SAP implementation in the private sector end up in a similar position, and yes it contributed in part to the company in question going to the wall.

    Maybe it's time to stop negotiating procurement at the golf course eh guys ?

  13. Andus McCoatover

    That'll do, pig.

    In "Babe", the pig made good. Different from this shower.

    What's the collective for "Owl"? Parliament, IIRC.

    And for blind bats? "Python" or a "nudge". Or a "wink". A Wink of bats. Better than a "cloud".*

    Say no more, squire.

    * Having been surrounded by such a cloud, standing at dusk on the Hampshire canal at Ash Vale, listening as they fed on the mosquitoes homing in on me, 'cloud' is a very good name. None of the throng touched me, an inch or less away from my face, yet I could feel the wind from their "wings". A true "David Attenboro' " experience.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Happy

    What is good enough?

    'good enough' IT solutions are a great idea, however how do you determine what is good enough?

    Is a £60k budget for a bespoke built system "good enough", if the £100k system could have stopped the last "foot and mouth" outbreak in the country?, or prevented 40 tons of carcenogenic curry powder from entering the retail food distribution chain? (there are no COTS solutions for this function)

    Is £30k budget for surveying and monitoring road side trees "good enough", when £50k could mean detecting and dealing with the tree before it fell on the car killing 3 people.

    In a private company the CBA was really easy, did we make more money by building the system or not.

    Life gets a little more complex writing CBA's in a council, where adding or subtracting a function from the requirements definition could result in death or serious injuries.

    1. Chris Miller

      More complex?

      Not necessarily. Gummint uses a fixed figure for the cost of saving one life - it used to be £2 million, but may have changed now. It sounds harsh (how can you put a price on human life?), but is unavoidable if you want to maximise the benefits from a limited budget.

  15. Chris Hardy
    Unhappy

    Local Council IT

    I had been recently asked to quote for IT support for a local council.

    I assessed their current IT use and immediate future needs. Open Source was better than any solution they had in mind, and i quoted them on such. This included training and implementation.

    As my quote was much lower than any other tender, they dismissed me as being too cheap!

    I have a useful contact in the council who actually recommended that i tender for this, i've also found out that they plan on paying just over twice as much as my tender, and getting 'trapped' in an MS world again.

    And the councils complain they're short of finances!

    grrr...

  16. TkH11

    Efficiency savings

    I'll tell you how to save money in councils, get rid of the tossers, the managers that haven't got a clue what they're doing. I can't tell you the details of what's going on where I live because I'm kicking up some stink over it, it's not the council per se that's causing the trouble but an offshoot which employs the exact same council employees and managers and f**k me, the money they're wasting, creating projects based on completely unsafe and incorrect justifications is incredible.

    I'll shortly be giving them a good kick-up the jacksy and proving to them exactly why their rationale for their latest high profile project is completely flawed. And no longer being part of the council, they're not accountable to anyone, but nevertheless, it's our money, tax payers money they're wasting.

    I'm looking forward to my meeting with them, but alas, the tossers have already signed up contracts with external suppliers, which I doubt they can break, and the humiliation they'll face if they have to admit to 60,000 people they've got the whole thing wrong, that's going to be too much to stomach, so no-doubt they'll press on with the project and claim that my technical expertise isn't as good as I make out..we'll see.

    My experience with the local newspaper isn't particularly good either, they're not particularly strong on technical matters, and generally I find them to be a complete bunch of muppets that couldn't careless what goes on in the locality, so I don't expect to get much truck with them in publicising what's going on.

    So, we'll see what happens.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Flame

    The Budget Game

    Local Authority budgets are a not logical beasts.

    If you have a very good advocate councilor for social services, then they get all the money, stripping cash aways from say Highways, who may actually need it more badly than the social services team. This is one classic way in which budgets get distorted.

    Nobody does zero base budgeting. As in a budget is an estimate of the fiscal resources you need to deliver X Y and Z functions for the next 12 months, and itemised contingencies with risk probabilities. Budgets are based on we will add or subtract 10% (decided by politics) from the budget you had last year, ignoring the avalanche of new laws central government may have just dumped on that department.

    Nobody likes IT. You have council departments running functions in the £m range on paper and spreadsheet, by throwing bodies at it, and just accepting the fact that you can't audit it. But suggest spending money to properly manage a £14m/pa function, and the councilor and chief officers will string you up from the nearest lamp post.

    last but not least is the re-election problem. Councilor A wants £70K for park benchs to keep his neighbourhood comunity groups happy, and hey presto your IT security project just got canned to pay for said benches. However the councillors will be the first to shout when the network gets overrun 6 monthes later by malware, and you cant tell meals on wheels where to send the food that day, and the social worker can't access the files on the child they need to visit that day to see if they are still alive.

  18. David Gale

    This isn't the half of it...

    Step 1: Deliver a COHERENT public sector IT STRATEGY (not policy masquerading as strategy)

    Step 2: Understand that IT and service transformation STARTS with building an IT architecture AFTER you understand the business

    Step 3: Ban tactical, point solutions unless required for a temporary quick fix

    Step 4: Build a public sector high-speed comms network

    Step 5: Build public sector, private cloud-based strategic IT frameworks (SITFO.org) as regional nodes to enable shared services and service transformation

    Step 6: Define shared, multi agency processes but pilot them first - NO BIG BANGS!

    Step 7: Rememebr that this is Britain - the Land of Vested Interest. Sell your house, pack your bags and take your skills somewhere where they'll be appreciated...

  19. Steve Davies

    Stop being rational - look at the nature of the beast.

    A large percentage of organisations when looked at in terms of 'personal behaviour' would be categorised as psychotic - can't recall the number but I bet someone can..

    with local (and central) government its 100 percent.

    cos they are only 'pretending'.

    who was it that said 'verything the State says is a lie" ?

    as for budget cuts - try getting hold of the net cash income figures for your council instead of looking just at 'budgets'.

    Remember the scorpion and the fox

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