back to article Local councils struggle with ill-fitting software despite spending billions with suppliers

UK councils might spend £8 billion ($10.1 billion) on tech each year, yet some find that suppliers don't have the wares they need and customizations can "incur significant costs." Or so says a report [PDF] from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which highlights hurdles local government can face when …

  1. b0llchit Silver badge
    Boffin

    Problems and solutions not welcome

    A typical "adapt the process to the computer" instead of "adapt the computer to the process". While the latter is seen as "expensive customization", it is the correct thing to do.

    The real problem is to define the problem and carefully integrate possible solutions into any existing processes(*). And defining the problem cannot be done by the ones making the decisions. The PHB decision makers are most seldom privy to the problems and generally disregard any solutions that make the human central in the process. Thus, any customization sinks in a deep hole of unclear goals and incompetence.

    (*) it doesn't mean that processes cannot change, but the human needs to be the central point in any process.

    1. Jonathon Green
      Boffin

      Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

      That and recognising that Local Authorities (and other government or quasi-governmental bodies) often have to exist within, comply with, and be able to demonstrate compliance with very different regulatory frameworks to commercial enterprises. Things which are pointless tickboxes for Acme Widgets plc wull be statutory responsibilities for Trumptonshire Social Services, and if the COTS solutions don’t support that without customisation…

      1. NeilPost

        Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

        At the central Government level a scalable repeatable standard system should designed.

        Councils all basically do the same statutory and non-statutory things, all have the same partners and agencies that need interface ro, all have the same suppliers and all have the same ‘public’ to serve and run various legal ffanewoeka for (and elections). They are also full of terrible archaic business processes that should not be adapted to all of the time. Streamline and standardise wherever possible. Remove cottage industry.

        Unfortunately the Crown Commercial part of the Caninet Office is just interested in endless rounds of procurement frameworks and not making repeatable working Government solutions.

        As you say they exist in the same statutory framework. You can add NHS, Universities, School and all Government to this woeful list.

        Shame the CCTA was junked in favour of deal for consultancies and procurement

        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Computer_and_Telecommunications_Agency

        ‘Just works and is not shit’ (and over budget, is late and under delivered) would be a good place to aim for.

    2. JimC

      Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

      Very much so.

      And consider it from the point of view of the end user department who considers the IT system a necessary evil that gets in the way of delivering the service:

      "OK, let me understand this. You want to take away the system we have, and which pretty much works and whose numerous flaws we know how to deal with. You want to replace it for no good reason (the supplier doesn't want to support it any more is a not a good reason in our book) with a new system. You want to run this system as it comes, which means that we're going to have to adapt all our working practices and so on in order to cope with the things it can't do. We're going to have to retrain all our staff, taking them off actually delivering a service to the public. No doubt the changeover period will be full of bugs and disruption and problems, not to mention all the effort in trying to figure out how to make it do what needs doing. And for all this disruption, loss of productivity, focus, compromised public service etc, the gross benefit to the public is going to be pretty much exactly nothing. You want us to find some enthusiastic people to help you implement this unnecessary change who are going to be taken off the work they like and were employed to do. Do you understand why we might not see this as a good thing?"

      1. LybsterRoy Silver badge

        Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

        -- the gross benefit to the public is going to be pretty much exactly nothing --

        I do have to disagree with this. The gross "benefit" to the public is increased taxes/rates

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

        I simply can't upvote this enough.

        And despite all of it, we find a way to make it work because there's no other option. Sadly that only results in the higher ups thinking that the whole thing was a resounding success and that they were right all along.

    3. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

      Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

      At attitude that turns a £20million budget into a £130 overrun and leaves you with a non-functioning system.

      You wouldn't look a bunch of trucks on offer and say, "None of these meet our needs, we're going to customise them to our spec." (Unless you're the MoD, that is.) It's obvious that, in addition to the initial costs, they'll be ongoing costs whenever maintenance is required. Ditto software. As soon as you customise, you have become a software house and are taking on the risk of managing the software you have commissioned and it's ongoing integration with the host product.

      There is an issue as to why there is no COTS solution for English councils. They are surely are a big enough segment. But I imagine it boils down to them all having completely different processes so no system has a chance of serving them. So that, if a custom product is developed four council X, it won't work for council Y without either (a) substantial alterations to the software or (b) council Y changing their processes to match council X.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

        "There is an issue as to why there is no COTS solution for English councils. They are surely are a big enough segment. But I imagine it boils down to them all having completely different processes so no system has a chance of serving them. "

        Yes, plus political rivalry between neighbouring counties / towns / boroughs, then regular changes of both local representation (a decent software package should last a heck of a lot longer than a 4-year councillor term), 'bright ideas' within each administration, and constantly changing government priorities, instructions and funding. Yes, companies have to adapt or die with changing markets but it's an apples / oranges comparison in my opinion.

        Even within a council, take maintenance for example. One asset management database should in theory do for everything, and should have details of repairs and renewals and have data to inform future projects. But roads and schools and civic buildings and council houses and whatever else are all looked after by different departments and different contractors which have their own rules and priorities and budgets, so designing any all-encompassing database would have to make it so general that no-one would be satisfied, including any regulators. As soon as you start going into detail, what dept. X needs will break or contravene what dept. Y needs. And the more detailed you make it, the more chance of programmer and user error.

        1. Lurko

          Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

          Change is slow and difficult - but rather than letting that stop things happening, the solution is perhaps to work with two or three local authorities willing to define and implement common processes, build a custom system to operate them, but additionally publish the processes so that third party suppliers have the option to build their own offering if they wish. DLUHC could (and should) make this happen by offering the budget for the resources to define the process - in return for a cast iron agreement to adopt them from participating councils. This won't be easy or cheap, but nationally there's no excuse for hundreds of completely different systems and processes.

          Once there's a system and a set of processes on offer that are proven to work, risk averse councils will tend to prefer that and when the time comes to move from existing systems it's in with a good chance, and government have plenty of ways of pressuring councils when they so choose.

          1. ExampleOne

            Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

            DLUHC could (and should) make this happen by offering the budget for the resources to define the process - in return for a cast iron agreement to adopt them from participating councils. This won't be easy or cheap, but nationally there's no excuse for hundreds of completely different systems and processes.

            Most councils will see this as a recipe for getting forced onto a solution that is not fit for purpose and would run a mile from it. "Cast iron agreement to adopt" an unknown solution is an incredibly risky commitment to give, even if they actually trust the DLUHC.

            1. NeilPost

              Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

              … yet they all do the same thing … working within the same regulatory framework.

              Oxfordshire County Council, and Northamptonshire Country Council are not ‘competing for business’ with Warwickshire County Council and should have almost 100% overlap on common purpose with Strathclyde Regional Council or Birmingham City Council.

              Some glimmers of hope with ‘shared services’ … but a long way to go.

              Changes to councils do not help.

              Cumberland and Westmorland being brought together in 1974 into Cumbria County Council … only to be broken up again in 2023 into Cumberland and Westmoreland Unitary Authorities later for example is strategically illiterate. Inc the 6 district councils contained within.

              The same fate will await Birmingham City Council… and the whole Oracle misadventure will end up being junked as does not fit the end shape of local government.

              1. 0laf Silver badge

                Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

                Kindof but not quite.

                You can't cross the borders with Councils, Scottish councils are very different to English councils with additional responsibilities plus have to act under Scottish Law and have to deal with Holyrood not just Westminster. They can play together just not very easily with English peers.

                Even where functions are identical the pressure is not normally to mirror systems and services in both authorities but to remove the service and have it carried out entirely by the other. Inevitably this would result in job losses to one party. Normally no elected member wants to be seen as the one taking job losses, so since both authorties cannot 'win' the service inevitably the idea is abandonded.

                In addition there are political rivalries to deal with and unless party lines are similar in neighbouring authorities the elected members will not normally play nice with each other. Political point scoring will always win out over services to citizens. I freely admit than there are elected members who are there to do good for their community but they are usually crowded out by the sociopaths who just want to see their face in the papers and pretend they are part of some important political drama.

                1. NeilPost

                  Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

                  Fixing roads, empting bins, licensing pubs, collecting council tax, running social workers, street and public car-parking, libraries, leisure centres, running environmental health functions etc - probably 99.5% overlap in common purpose between Councils in The Home Nations of the UK - despite devolution.

                  1. Anonymous Coward
                    Anonymous Coward

                    Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

                    Your logic is sound and these things absolutely are shared functions and could be merged but councils just don't (or maybe won't) work like that. Leisure Centres are rarely part of councils now largely having been seperated and turned into Leisure Trusts (although wholly owned by councils still) for tax purposes. Libraries are often part of the same process. so they are owned by the councils but not really controlled by the council.

                    Big things tend not to get shared again it's down to politics, culture and inertia. Even when they actually want to do things together it can be very difficult since they rarely have the same renewal periods for the current services they'd like to merge.

                    Also not all system/service sellers will support joint procurements since there is more money to be made by selling many smalll services.

                    I used to work for one authority and was involved in many procurements. We had a number of friendly neighbouring authorities and IT services actaully all worked together quite well. So there were a healthy number of joint procurements ocurring at that level but it was not easy. The IT guys were pretty good at being pragmatic and tweaking specifications to work together but most other departments were difficult, it had to work for them in their way or not at all.

                    On a larger basis there were a few national initiatives, Planning, School MIS but not many. Joint frameworks are more common.

        2. abend0c4 Silver badge

          Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

          And yet there are companies that have transformed themselves into major outsourcers for public services. They must have access to suitable software? And where solutions are made available (such as the management of planning applications), there's no shortage of local authorities desperate to offload an administrative headache.

          I think part of the problem is actually the organisation of vendors' sales channels. They typically lump local authorities in with other public sector and government clients with consequently elevated sales targets. If they regarded them, at least in some contexts, more as SMEs - and for things like planning applications, FoI request management or bin collection complaints there may only be a handful of staff needing access - there may be scope for more hosted, shared solutions which may not be specifically tailored, but at least with the compensation of not being specifically costly.

          1. doublelayer Silver badge

            Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

            Those companies mainly exist because they have the ability to provide something based on a design that sort of looks acceptable and technically isn't broken, then charge for each change so that it actually becomes a little useful. Their business is based on those who need the software not being able to plan out exactly what they need and describe it accurately enough that they get what they need, and from having frequent enough changes that there's always someone around who needs them to build a new one. Some of the tools they have could be handy, but they'll still need to design something that's likely to do a lot of things for a long time, which current projects sometimes say they're doing but don't always accomplish because the design doesn't allow for it and neither the seller nor the buyer makes sure it happens.

          2. airbrush

            Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

            They use council systems to deliver the service I expect, to integrate yet another software process would add considerably to the cost presumably.

          3. NeilPost

            Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

            Enterprise Resource Planning…

            Is a Council (or a University like say Edinburgh) working in a regulatory framework ‘an enterprise’??

      2. yetanotheraoc Silver badge

        Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

        You wouldn't look a bunch of trucks on offer and say, "None of these meet our needs, we're going to customise them to our spec."

        There is a good reason an off-the-shelf truck is likely fit for purpose. When the previous model truck killed an occupant, there was a recall, and new safety requirements for the latest model. When the previous software migration (metaphorically) killed the council, everybody blamed the council, then told them to do it again but get it right this time.

        1. Terry 6 Silver badge

          Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

          It's also factually incorrect. First there are all sorts of general purpose trucks, from big buggers with rows of enormous wheels to low loaders and things that are just glorified vans, as well as dumper trucks and so on.

          Second there are all sorts of specialised vehicles that are basically trucks that are designed or modified for a specific job- like the ones that receive crops from harvesters in the fields etc. But in essence they're trucks. Even if they have a fancy name.

          1. doublelayer Silver badge

            Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

            A lot of those customized machines are really just customized machines with wheels. The casing and the engine may be trucklike, but the important part that makes them different are the machines in the middle. There's a reason why you don't just buy a harvester and plop it on a truck.

            Their point was that, when you want a vehicle to move something, you often choose between the general purpose options on offer rather than trying to make a custom one. If you succeed, the custom one might be a bit more efficient and maintainable, but it will be more expensive because it's only customized for you and you will have waited a long time for it to come around. Unless you need something that the general purpose options don't do, you will probably be better off with one of those instead. At times, it might be necessary to change a process so that you don't have to spend a lot of resources making tools that are otherwise useless.

        2. NeilPost

          Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

          … well any Police Vehicle, Highways Agency Vehicle, Ambulance etc once received goes out for extensive fit out before it’s ’to spec’ and ready for use.

          Quite why the English Highways Agency drive BMW X5/Volvo XC90’s (and other premium SUV’s) … and not a Mercedes Sprinter or Ford Transit van is another baffling question.

      3. froggreatest

        Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

        There are a couple of reasons why generalised solutions do not get to the market (I was developing software for LAs before):

        - Sales process is lengthy (months to years) for each LA meaning you need a bunch of salespeople

        - By the time you scale to 10 LAs the legislation has a good chance of changing and your solution goes out the window

        - There are not that many LAs so there is a hard growth cap for your product, repurposong for other markets is very difficult

        - Councils like customisations and it is difficult to write software so that a lot can be changed. Think colours, branding, wording, Welsh might be necessary, one-off integrations with proprietary systems

        - Folks working in councils “sometimes” do not understand their own processes well

        - Integration usually needs to work without the involvement of their IT due to various issues like resource constraints and a difficult attitude to trying to solve issues

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

          "By the time you scale to 10 LAs the legislation has a good chance of changing and your solution goes out the window"

          It's not a very good solution if it cannot be changed just once and then farmed out to the 10 LAs. Each LA then gets the change in potentially 1/10th (depending on where they are in the priority queue) of the time at 1/10th the cost. OK it makes you as the supplier less money and that is all the mangelment is interested in.

          So the problem is with the suppliers, seeing it as a reduction in chargeable time, not a problem with the LAs.

          "There are not that many LAs so there is a hard growth cap for your product, repurposong for other markets is very difficult"

          There should be one solution (with options selectable per LA) available to all via the government, who pay for it and host it centrally.

          "Folks working in councils “sometimes” do not understand their own processes well"

          This is the normal state in any organisation, and dealt with forever. Get over it!

          "Integration usually needs to work without the involvement of their IT due to various issues like resource constraints and a difficult attitude to trying to solve issues"

          One central solution (cloud based, cough) will reduce the IT costs considerably for all LAs.

          1. Terry 6 Silver badge

            Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

            "Folks working in councils “sometimes” do not understand their own processes well"

            More to the point "folks working in councils" and everywhere else do usually understand their own processes extremely well. Including what they need to do, how they do it and why it doesn't work as well as it should. What's broke and how to fix it.

            But no one ever gives a shit what the peons say.

            And certainly senior council officers are usually pretty clueless about what council frontline staff are doing. Let alone what would help/hinder getting the job done. And usually have an eye on what stuff looks like to the members ( councillors) and the public. So reality is less important than the semblance of efficiency and doing it right.

            The stupidest example I can recollect was the parking voucher nonsense.

            As council staff visiting schools we used to be able to place an exemption notice on our cars, and park nearby for free. Partly because this had been abused by some senior officers for parking all day round the Town Hall there were Complaints from local businesses. As in "Why should council staff get free parking when we have to pay"? Which is one of those things that seems sensible until you look at it.

            But if you do look at it- employees of those businesses don't have to pay if they are on company business- the company should. And council staff (who are actually) on council business would get parking paid for by the council in the same way

            The sensible answer would be to stop the abuse, then explain to the public that the exemption could only be used for official business- which had to be authorised . And that it made no sense for officers to be claiming money from the council to pay to the council.

            Instead we had to use part of our budget to buy batches of parking vouchers, which diverted part of the money that the council had allocated to our service to do the job the council wanted us to do, into a part of the council (parking services) that it hadn't been allocated to, while diverting staff time away from our jobs to sort out buying, collecting and securing these vouchers. Then instead of spending seconds putting the exemption card in our car windows we had to constantly worry about having the right vouchers for the place we were visiting that session, select the correct voucher, carefully scribble off the date and time and make sure that the voucher was clearly displayed. Which took time. Particularly because if we made an error in our haste to get into the school and start a session we'd get a fine we had to pay ourselves. Those few minutes might not seem much, but across the borough it will have amounted to 5 or 10 hours a week cumulative teaching hours lost and a bit of extra disruption for the school,since class teachers couldn't just fit their work around our timings.

            If the senior officers had understood what this meant and had been honest with the public an awful lot of public money wouldn't have been wasted.

            1. NeilPost

              Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

              … or not having a hostile parking environment in your expensive to stay decrepit town centre and then wondering why all of the businesses have fucked off to new build out of town strip-malls… leaving hairdressers, charity shops, kebab shops, Polski Sklep’s and bookies/slots as your town centre anchor businesses.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

          Standardised solutions being driven from Central Government - as the purse string holders and drivers of legislation- is the change needed here.

          All we get of endless rounds of procurement frameworks…..

          1. Binraider Silver badge

            Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

            Considering that most of central gov are shareholders in the IT services sector including some very obvious financial interests of the PM; you cannot expect them to want to do anything other than print more money through incompetence. It’s in their own interest that councils be ineffective.

            Change the incentive to one of being efficient and then, maybe, they will operate on that basis.

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

        Hundreds of councils from parish scaled up through Borough to County/Region and Metro.

        - all operating within the same regulatory framework

        - all doing the same thing

        Hmm..

        Sometimes choice is not a good thing.

        NHS, Schools, Universities all have this same disease of waste. USA is even worse with dick waving and State v’s Federal on top (similar to UK devolution but at an antagonist level).

    4. Mike 137 Silver badge

      Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

      @b0llchit "carefully integrate possible solutions into any existing processes"

      With full recognition of and agreement with your footnote, in my experience many local govt. processes (both manual and extant 'electronic') are so badly designed that the first step should be to improve them as they stand, before migrating them to any new tech solution. But that never gets into the project plan so we finish up at best with shiny new implementations of inadequate processes.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        > govt. processes so badly designed

        In a way Javier Milei is correct, governments ARE the the problem. At least private businesses can only survive if there are both a need for a service, and someone is willing to pay. However government bureaucracy operates differently. Apart of privatization, regulation and law simplification seem good starting points.

        At any rate, for existing gov IT systems, no OOP should ever be used, for constantly changing and uncertain nature of the process.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: > govt. processes so badly designed

          Privatising government services doesn't work though because most of those services are things that can't be allowed to fail.

          Private companies are only better than governments when they're being run by people who know that if they do a bad job the company will fail and they'll be out of a job.

          On the whole companies doing essential government functions know that if they don't do the job very well and lose a bunch of money they'll probably get propped up with free government money because the real government can't allow that thing to stop working, even for a few days.

          Add to this that most of these functions are natural monopolies and efficient businesses need competition to make them efficient.

          The UK's privatised water industry is a great example.

          Simplifying laws and regulations sounds appealing but you have to remember that most laws and regulations are actually complex for a reason. Most people pushing for simplification just don't understand the problem.

    5. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

      A typical "adapt the process to the computer" instead of "adapt the computer to the process".

      I see this everywhere. EVERYWHERE.

      1. doublelayer Silver badge

        Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

        I do, and it's a problem, but I also see the opposite which is also a problem. For example, having a computer take a paper form and transfer it between different mailboxes, just like the original paper forms did. You could probably do things a lot more efficiently by having the computer read the form and use the contained information to decide how to direct it, but the original process says that Dave does that, so we just send everything to Dave and wait for him to send them. If we automated that part of the job, Dave could probably do a lot more of the tasks that actually require some thinking, but by not touching the process, we're not saving the time we could. The best approach is to frequently consider changing the process, and keep in mind all available tools when you do, but only actually change it when the change will or is believed to make a real improvement, then check whether it has. That's a lot more work than assuming that someone, whether it's the software writers or the people running the original process, will be much better if only the other group conforms exactly to what they want to do, so people don't always want to do it.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Problems and solutions not welcome

        Standardise, simplify and align business processes wherever possible and eliminate reliance on single individuals … don’t spend hundreds of thousands migrating Marjorie in Council Permits Cottage Industry industry to Oracle ERP she has been cultivating for 25 years and no-one else understands never mind can do it.

  2. Lee D Silver badge

    Exactly the use-case for a central, national, integrated government IT provision, one would think.

    What are councils doing differently to each other that can't be dealt with on a national level?

    Why do 317 local authorities all have to source their stuff independently, pay for it independently, ask for changes independently, and fix bugs independently?

    Anyone with a brain would provide a single, central, authoritative system, maintained, managed, secured and paid for outside the scope of individual councils, and require them to use it (which will quickly get you a huge bug-list and feature-request list immediately).

    So much modern wastage is just duplication of effort for absolutely zero gain. It's especially true in IT. Why is there not, for example, a "just set me up a damn network" option in Windows Server / Azure?

    1. codejunky Silver badge

      @Lee D

      "What are councils doing differently to each other that can't be dealt with on a national level?

      Why do 317 local authorities all have to source their stuff independently, pay for it independently, ask for changes independently, and fix bugs independently?"

      I would guess so Birmingham can go bust but not take everyone else down with it. I might be wrong but at least by sourcing things separately some of them might get ripped off but others dont have to. Done nationally we get the same poor service and ripping off everywhere.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: @Lee D

        Is not using economies of scale an example of a Nickel Town economy?

        1. codejunky Silver badge

          Re: @Lee D

          @AC

          "Is not using economies of scale an example of a Nickel Town economy?"

          Economies of scale or locked in customer without a hope? For example our economy of scale government and their glorious big projects- over budget, under-spec and late. Then they beg the same suppliers for the replacement project in hopes it goes better.

    2. heyrick Silver badge

      Upvote as I came to say the same thing. Fifty different councils do not require fifty dictent, bespoke, and expensive setups. With mental health support, youth services, libraries, and so on falling off a cliff and council tax rates rising ever more to fail at covering what central government no longer pays for... this is a shocking waste of money.

      1. software-sammi

        Local Authorities designed to fail

        The problem is, as long as central government have a mechanism to blame opposition run local authorities for “their failings”, then failures are beneficial political playing cards for Whitehall. There’s an active incentive to make life harder for Local Authorities from central government.

        (See Rishi Sunak’s comments on what “Labour have done to Birmingham”)

      2. hoola Silver badge

        That maybe the case but you can absolutely guarantee that if there is a single provider to manage Housing Benefit, Parking, Licensing etc that the costs will be equally horrendous with no overall benefit.

        Who can provide that size??????

        SAP

        Oracle

        Fujitsu

        Infosys

        IBM

        .....

        All masters of totally screwing over their customers.

        1. Richard 12 Silver badge

          Jane in her shed

          I'm not even kidding.

          The real scale is quite small, when you look at the actual transactions per day and compare it to what cheap commodity servers are trivially capable of.

          It just looks big because it's in several people's interest to make it look as big as possible.

    3. JimC

      Anyone with a brain would provide a single, central, authoritative system

      "OK, so here's the situation.You have to write a software system for 317 clients."

      - "What 317 different customers? Can I just resign instead?"

      "Oh Sorry, that's a bit misleading. There are lot more customers than that, 317 end user departments, 317 IT departments all with different compatibility requirements, 317 finance departments and 317 chief executive's offices."

      - "I think I have to go on sick leave..."

      1. heyrick Silver badge

        Re: Anyone with a brain would provide a single, central, authoritative system

        Oracle claims "430,000 customers in 175 countries", Microsoft claims something like a billion users of Windows. Office/LibreOffice will have many installations too.

        The trick/skill is not to support 317 different configurations, but to work out what they actually need (not what they think they need) and what's the commonality between them all. Sure, some may have special requirements (Portsmouth, for example, may include stuff about bits that get wet in a way that Basingstoke wouldn't...), but then other port towns will have the same set of issues.

        1. Terry 6 Silver badge

          Re: Anyone with a brain would provide a single, central, authoritative system

          Exactly.It's mostly bills out/tax in, bins emptied,streets cleaning scheduled,staff hired,library membership/loans/book stock, school budgets, public health and so on. And some councils may do more, have more services than others, but there are a finite number of these. And the basic principles of how they function are pretty much the same from authority to authority- even potential variations are limied ( e.g. free garden waste collection, subscription garden waste collection or no garden waste collection).

      2. Richard 12 Silver badge

        Re: Anyone with a brain would provide a single, central, authoritative system

        I've personally done more than 317 large custom installs of designed-to-be-customised software & hardware packages.

        The ground rules are the same for everyone. They really are.

        Heck, the reason Horizon was a totally corrupt failure was because it did not follow the ground rules for financial reporting.

        You never want total customisation.

    4. froggreatest

      councils do not like central gov

      Multiple attempts have been made in the central gov already. But stop and think how many failures we had, most recent GDS and Verify, both good solutions IMO. There is no need to design anything in the gov at all, there are plenty off the shelf solutions that can be bought. The issues in the procurement process exist although there is a central digital marketplace.

      Gov should sit down and draft standards to implement, then suppliers could develop against those without the fear of anticipating more logo/colour changes in the sales process.

      1. Andy 73 Silver badge

        Re: councils do not like central gov

        This doesn't have to be a centralised solution - just a common set of tools that authorities have enough information and understanding to apply to their specific needs. We absolutely do not want one central monolith "to rule them all" - we want to eliminate the mistakes that are consistently made when specifying, implementing and integrating what are fairly common organisational tools in government.

        And that is where a centralised 'centre of excellence' can provide education, skills and advice (and some common tools) that authorities could utilise before spending billions on failing projects.

        1. Terry 6 Silver badge

          Re: councils do not like central gov

          100% This.

          And reading that it occurred to me that there are many thousands of restaurant businesses, They're all different. but most of them have standardised computerised booking, seating, billing and ordering systems.

          1. Lee D Silver badge

            Re: councils do not like central gov

            Restaurants, hotels, EPOS systems in general, payroll, invoicing, etc.

            Establish common criteria.

            Set standards.

            Source tools to do the job.

            Make everyone use those same tools, and adapt the tools ONCE where necessary.

          2. hoola Silver badge

            Re: councils do not like central gov

            Most do not use the same system.

            There are many different systems out there and they do not have to be compatible with each other.

            What is being discussed is that all restaurants will have to use exactly the same system.

            Or that all systems have to somehow have an open framework for compatibility.

            Both are not viable (currently)

            Also just look at the footprint when the inevitable happens and there is some breach or upgrade failure.

            Everything affected....

            At least currently there is some separation.

    5. Andy 73 Silver badge

      Sigh...

      There is a very broken concept of independence and competition, where this is one of the areas that has the strongest case for shared, common solutions.

      Of course our government (let's be clear, all UK political parties and the devolved governments) are heavily lobbied and 'supported' by the big players in such a way that they do not believe there is a credible alternative - they get offered a "huge discount" on the headline price (and no concept of just how badly over inflated it is), and get sold inflexible monoliths that are deeply tied to consultancies that are the only choice when it comes to (absolutely obligatory) customisation.

      This is further encouraged by local council officers who need to protect their budget, staff and the perception of the value they provide. They are heavily incentivised to believe that the problems they are solving are unique and complex, and the big providers are going to do absolutely nothing to persuade them otherwise.

      If the civil service was worth a fraction of what they claim, they would be able to provide an analysis that shows the commonality across the many local authorities, the areas that can be "solved once", ways to break apart the monolith with well defined boundaries, and patterns for customisation at cost. This does not necessarily require getting rid of the (deeply embedded) big suppliers, but education for local authorities on how to engage and specify work. There is absolutely no excuse for the civil service not to make this priority - both as a facility for authorities and as a skill set within the service. Yet... here we are..

      1. Richard 12 Silver badge

        Re: Sigh...

        The civil service have been repeatedly gutted by multiple governments, but especially over the last 13 years.

        Most departments are now massively understaffed and spend a lot of effort simply defending their existence. There's no slack for staff learning - though still plenty of budget for hiring consultants to hire consultants...

        Councils have lost a huge proportion of their budget due to the reduced grants from central government that they simply cannot replace by local taxation - even if it were legal, the increases in council tax to cover that would be impossible to actually collect.

        It would take a long time and a pretty dedicated central government to fix this.

        1. Andy 73 Silver badge

          Re: Sigh...

          That's not strictly true. Civil service numbers were reduced after the 2008 crash, but have since increased back to roughly the same as they were in 2002 or the period leading up to 2008.

          We have a growing civil service.

          And as ever, the idea that this has to be a "big" problem is, I feel, misleading. The last thing this needs is yet another big department of thousands of people all doing busy work and loosing sight of the overall picture. There are a limited number of functions a local authority ERP system needs to perform, and strictly, a limited number of ways of doing those functions. Solving that involves focussing on commonalities and careful separation of concerns where authorities are quite reasonably expected to diverge. This is an architectural (and evangelical!) problem that needs an expert, small(er) team to address (blah, blah, agile, bacon slicing, all the well accepted techniques in the private sector) - NOT something that the government should attempt to fix by just throwing people at it. We already have plenty of evidence that that approach is (a) extremely costly and (b) never actually works.

  3. Terry 6 Silver badge

    Software for purposes

    Too much local council computing is done because "It needs to go onto the computer". And a monolithic "solution" is built.

    My own feeling, having spent around 3 decades working within these systems, is that there needs to be a central core of software, that runs staffing, billing, accounting and the like. But that departments should have software that is designed ( and customisable) for their roles. Stuff that any Local Authority can buy off the shelf for their departments. Planning would have a software package to handle planning applications. And the finance stuff could then be piped to the main computer as a standardised payments in/payments out system that doesn't need to know the prices of different services. And so on.IOW. It should be as modular as possible and the modules should be universal across all of the country/ies.. Every planning department would have the same basic planning dept. software- and that should be designed to encompass the roles of any local authority planning department, but nothing else. Ditto Education and Leisure ( what's left of it) etc.

  4. ChrisElvidge Bronze badge

    All the above suggestions about standardising council software are good, but

    what about the poor systems integrators that would be out of a job?

    Whatever happened to the old way of doing things? - I'll pay the bill when it works.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: All the above suggestions about standardising council software are good, but

      This govt ... just like all other govts back to Adam seem to only sign contracts that say we will pay whether it works or not !!!

      Local councils appear to be following the same thought process ..... [A big assumption that any cogent thought was involved !!!]

      Changes and adaptions to match the local processes seems to be an extra cost option that is delivered on a 'when we get around to it' basis.

      Govt and local councils seen to be totally unaware of paying on delivery of a 'working system' therefore there is no incentive to deliver a 'working system'.

      The suppliers just keep cranking the handle and more and more money comes in ... until the local council gives up or goes bankrupt !!!

      As stated by others it seems obvious to deliver a base set of 'Standard Applications' to perform the base standard services that all councils need to deliver.

      Force councils to adopt the 'Base Applications' and make their processes fit.

      The cost saving in the long run is worth the pain and costs.

      317 sets of 'Good ideas to match our randomly generated processes' which are not delivered anyway does not make any sense.

      Many a pocket is being lined and will only continue to be lined if this is not changed !!!

      :)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: All the above suggestions about standardising council software are good, but

        That's a fair point. Some years back I was involved in a bunch of meeting between the chosen builders of a new self-financing ( i.e they build us a new place and redevelop the old one and add on a block of flats) education building project, and the local authority.

        All the way through ( until I retired) I was asking where the budget was for their glorious promises- automated computer controlled access, CCTV, up-to-date computer network, ample secure storage space, amazing landscaping and play areas, and so on. Oh and a budget for maintenance. And all the time there was a vague patting on my head and a "there there don't worry. It'll get done. Those are just details". From both sides. It was clear that I, the expert in how the building needed to be used, was just a nuisance. Asking annoying questions about their glorious new joint project.

        When I went back for a visit there were no controlled access doors, no CCTV, far too few cupboards, many of which were inaccessible and shoddy, and a grim boring play area..With no budget for even the things that had been included ( like replacing the storage cupboard doors that were already falling off).

        AC because some colleagues are possibly still working there.

      2. yetanotheraoc Silver badge

        Re: All the above suggestions about standardising council software are good, but

        Good ideas ... "which are not delivered anyway". -- I liked that one. I propose we call this approach to software standardisation the Model T, in honor of Henry Ford. Councils everywhere can choose from the following menu:

        1. Custom software that does exactly what you want, except it never works as intended, nevertheless for an outrageously high price.

        2. Model T software that doesn't do everything you want, but at least it does something, and for a very modest price.

      3. hoola Silver badge

        Re: All the above suggestions about standardising council software are good, but

        Mostly that is because they have no choice.

        They are tied into strict procurement frameworks and rules that make it nearly impossible to select a supplier that may do the job perfectly.

        The outcome is that procurement is designed to protect Finance and Procurement teams from being sued by unsuccessful companies that put in tender responses that do not meet the criteria.

        Who is to blame for this ridiculous state of affairs?

        The same big IT incumbents who see the public sector, education & health as a cash cow they have a right to exploit.

    2. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: All the above suggestions about standardising council software are good, but

      "Whatever happened to the old way of doing things? - I'll pay the bill when it works."

      Some people realized that it was a recipe for not being paid at all because the software did what you asked for, not what you actually needed. Those people put in a contract saying you'd pay when they implemented your design, whether you decided changes were needed or not was being a separate matter. Then someone else realized that, if people signed that, they could make the contract even more lax and get paid in a lot of situations. The first is logical. The second could use some people pushing back against it.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Market

    It seems strange to me that there is a belief there is a 'market' for the software councils use. How many social care systems supplier do you think there are, or companies making systems for monitoring street lighting, or antisocial behaviour order, or dog shit, or any of thousands of weird tasks councils actually do.

    There just isn't a market. If you're lucky you might get 2 or 3 suppliers for one of thes functions and generally one will be shit, and the others massively more expensive. The procurement rules will almost always mean the shit one is bought as it will be 25% the price. Even then the others are usually on a hair trigger to go to court for damages over alleged breaking of procurement rules.

    Where you have a monopoly supplier for a statutory function then you're basically fucked. You'll pay through the nose for a creaky poorly written and begrudgingly maintained PoS.

    Probably supplied by one of the well know suppliers this sort of stuff, CRAPITA, NGA, Fujitsu etc

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Market

      There's hundreds of them.

      Though each of those 'markets' is hugely dysfunctional.

      For example, Social Care.

      The council puts out several contracts for tender, one for each small local area.

      They select the lowest bidder.

      The lowest bidder actually bid at or slightly below cost, so they do not provide the contracted care - the difference between contract and provision is generally their profit margin. This isn't noticed for about two years.

      The council then take the contract away, and the supplier declares bankruptcy. All the staff are moved to the new supplier, which is oddly owned by the same people, based out of the same office but the sign on the door has changed.

      Redundancy (and business taxes owed) usually doesn't get paid as the dead company has no assets at all.

      Rinse and repeat. And you will get rinsed.

  6. Tron Silver badge

    Go back to the future.

    Card indexes, ledgers and simple offline systems. Post-Brexit there isn't enough cash to waste so much on tech that you have to keep replacing, that will never be secure and which offers an ill-fitting non-solution. It worked. It can work again.

    1. codejunky Silver badge

      Re: Go back to the future.

      @Tron

      "Card indexes, ledgers and simple offline systems. Post-Brexit there isn't enough cash to waste so much on tech that you have to keep replacing, that will never be secure and which offers an ill-fitting non-solution. It worked. It can work again."

      You seem mistaken. It was the freedom of movement that killed our border control. Our regulations ballooned due to membership. And of course government spent all the money and left huge debts before brexit.

      But yes simpler systems would probably work better, but the specification, rules and regulations also need to be simplified and reduced too I expect.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Go back to the future.

        "You seem mistaken. It was the freedom of movement that killed our border control."

        No one falls for this type of Brexit bullshit any more, do they? Post Brexit the number of people with irregular immigration status in the UK has shot through the roof. Border control failure is a British failure pre and post Brexit. People who suggest otherwise are either stupid or liars.

        1. Terry 6 Silver badge

          Re: Go back to the future.

          More to the point. Freedom of movement didn't. Border controls were still there and EU passport holders still had to present those passports. EU citizens were allowed equal status with UK citizens ( and vice versa), but the controls remained. Schengen style passport-less travel was only ever raised as a straw-man alongside all the other anti-EU lies. (Anyone remember that bus with the money for the NHS btw?)

        2. codejunky Silver badge

          Re: Go back to the future.

          @AC

          "No one falls for this type of Brexit bullshit any more, do they? Post Brexit the number of people with irregular immigration status in the UK has shot through the roof. Border control failure is a British failure pre and post Brexit."

          Interesting analysis but missing the point I think. Surely instead of comparing the pre/post brexit the comparison should be the pre/post freedom of movement as that is what I pointed to as the problem? The very immigration problem Labour admitted to underestimating greatly and so losing any idea of how many people are in the country and creating a huge backlog in processing.

          Kudo's to labour for owning the error but how could the border force not struggle under this mistake-

          https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/nov/13/jack-straw-labour-mistake-poles

          And this isnt a recent problem of asylum seekers-

          From the first year in office, the issue had hit the Labour government like a whirlwind. In 1997 net migration had been 48,000, but it rose extremely rapidly over the next 12 months, almost trebling to 140,000 in 1998. It was never to fall below 100,000 again.

          EU migration section-

          The authors therefore had to use Commonwealth countries, ranging from Australia to Swaziland, to make their forecasts. Based on their calculations, the report predicted that Britain would receive between 5,000 to 13,000 net immigrants per year averaged over a ten year period from the new member states.

          The reality turned out to be quite different. The Office for National Statistic (ONS) estimates that between 2004 and 2012, the net inflow of migrants from the new members was 423,000. - https://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/mar/24/how-immigration-came-to-haunt-labour-inside-story

          So yes our current situation is of our own British problems. Interestingly every time the gov tries to do something its hands are tied by courts when the simple concept of illegal = out shouldnt be complicated.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Go back to the future.

            I was very clear: Irregular migration. "Illegals" as the Gammons term them. Nice swerve. But no cigar. British border control issues are cause by the Britsh government and their apologists. No one else.

            There is no solution when you just play the blame game. Finger pointing and Gammon rousing solves nothing.

            1. codejunky Silver badge

              Re: Go back to the future.

              @AC

              "I was very clear: Irregular migration. "Illegals" as the Gammons term them. Nice swerve. But no cigar. British border control issues are cause by the Britsh government and their apologists. No one else."

              What do you mean by irregular?

              Synonym(s)

              illegal migration

              undocumented migration

              illegal immigration

              unauthorised migration

              clandestine migration

              - https://home-affairs.ec.europa.eu/networks/european-migration-network-emn/emn-asylum-and-migration-glossary/glossary/irregular-migration_en

              And I dont absolve the gov as you would know if you read my post. You seem to be finger pointing but I will have to await an explanation why

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Go back to the future.

                Suggestion: Go read up on it? "Do your own research"?

                Just one example:

                Irregular migration in the UK

                1. codejunky Silver badge

                  Re: Go back to the future.

                  @AC

                  "Suggestion: Go read up on it? "Do your own research"?"

                  From your link the very first line-

                  There is no legal nor broadly accepted definition of an ‘irregular migrant’, though the term is most commonly used to refer to people who are in the UK without the legal right to be so.

                  So it looks like my research was right and you are still moaning but seem short of a reason. I can guess you are a troll or china bot but this is funny.

              2. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Go back to the future.

                Just FYI a large proportion are visa overstays. The UK doesn't have the a lot of capacity to control or expel people once they are inside the country. The problem is that Gammon herders and apologists focus on "Asylum seekers". And thus that is all this bunch of reactionary incompetants can think about.

                1. codejunky Silver badge

                  Re: Go back to the future.

                  @AC

                  "Just FYI a large proportion are visa overstays"

                  Assuming you are the same AC as I just responded to your link also points out the gov has no idea how many there are either. Something to do with not counting.

                  1. Anonymous Coward
                    Anonymous Coward

                    Re: Go back to the future.

                    You see. You can digest real facts. Well done!

      2. airbrush

        Re: Go back to the future.

        Theres a 100k more civil servants than pre Brexit, at least 3 billion quids worth put year for people we didn't need before, that should give an indication of the the huge amount of new red tape that needs administering..

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Go back to the future.

          But on the plus side: Blue Passports!

        2. codejunky Silver badge

          Re: Go back to the future.

          @airbrush

          "Theres a 100k more civil servants than pre Brexit, at least 3 billion quids worth put year for people we didn't need before, that should give an indication of the the huge amount of new red tape that needs administering.."

          Actually there are less civil servants than pre Brexit. It seems we have a similar number to the first quarter of 2002 based on the following source-

          https://www.statista.com/statistics/966830/public-sector-civil-service-workforce-uk/

          Or even this one-

          https://www.civilservant.org.uk/information-numbers.html

          Also I dont know how much stock you would put into this but here is red tape-

          https://order-order.com/2015/03/02/comprehensive-study-finds-64-7-of-uk-law-made-in-brussels/

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Go back to the future.

            Also I dont know how much stock you would put into this but here is red tape-

            Using Guido Fawkes as a reference for anything. Hilarious.

            Address yourself to the increased estimated number of irregular migrants in the UK. As caused by British ineptitude rather than the bollocks excuse you made up that it is/was "Freedom of Movement".

  7. Paul 87

    I think the answer is for the government to implement data object standards, ones that can describe all the most commonly described items that software has to deal with from employees, to claimants, to suppliers, to stock items, to asset management and so on. With data standards in place, with a level of flexibility, then software can be written to handle those objects through processes as required, and things can be shared between different software platforms without a lock-in.

    It's no different to manufacturing using standard parts, if all your data components meet the specification, then you can use a variety of ways to put them together.

  8. t245t Silver badge
    IT Angle

    We haven't a clue and an everlasting money tree.

    “It's difficult to prioritise change projects without a clear set of priorities to align to”

  9. Mike007 Bronze badge

    I will never forget what happened when I needed to claim unemployment assistance. I filled out the lengthy application form on the DWPs website and then got invited in for a face to face meeting. When I turned up the guy had a printout of the form I had filled in on the website and the "meeting" consisted if him typing all of the data in to the system they actually use...

    The fact that someone actually commissioned an online application form that didn't feed the data in to the system it was intended for shows the competence of the people who award these contacts.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Any inefficiency is a potential for an additional public job, and after a while a job for a team supervisor. Could it be a feature, not a bug?

      1. Binraider Silver badge

        The strongest argument of all for a truly universal basic income. Strip out ALL those unproductive jobs and throw the proceeds directly to people.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      That's air gapping

      Well, to look on the bright side that did separate the actual system from the open internet making it a lot harder to hack, put ransomware on it and steal information from it :-)

      1. doublelayer Silver badge

        Re: That's air gapping

        It did if that internal system was disconnected from the internet. If that server already had a network connection, then it isn't an airgap and it's just an inefficient manual step with no security benefits at all.

  10. yetanotheraoc Silver badge

    Free your mind

    So £8 bn per annum on IT procurement of which £1 bn is on maintaining the bugabooed "legacy" tech. Why not declare the £1 bn is money well spent and stop pouring the other £7 bn down the drain?

    It should cost well south of one-time £7 bn to image all the legacy desktops and move them as-is to some cloudy infrastructure, where you could run them in perpetuity for the same £1 bn annual spend.

  11. Dan 55 Silver badge
    Coffee/keyboard

    "The council now plans to re-implement Oracle out of the box."

    Reader, how I laughed.

  12. Binraider Silver badge

    Why does every council need its own implementation? Apart from to print money for suppliers?

    The waste is utterly staggering. But if we don’t reform, the job creation schemes will continue to poach workers from actual productive work.

  13. aaaashy

    no place for local variation when it come to software

    i believe in a decentralised govt for the UK, council, being able to determine solutions for local problems EXCEPT when it comes to software, which should surely be bought by govt for use around the country ... and this should be backed up by a group of highly able software folks who know what they are doing, and can see the present and future requirements of that software ... and this one solution is then given to local councils, without charge, so that the continual upkeep of arcane solutions doesn’t bankrupt the councils ...

    solutions that do not become uncontrollably expensive the moment you rely on them is the only affordable way forward

  14. thondwe

    Suit(e)s you sir?

    Have a feeling that in a number of sectors (Local Council, Education etc) we may have reached the tipping point given what modern development tools and developers are capable where getting a tailor made suite for the sector is going to be much more cost effective than customising some off the self package?

    Noting that clearly it would take a time and money to get started, but should save long term?

    Paul

  15. tiggity Silver badge

    "Added to this councils may not have the skills or knowledge to procure effectively."

    If anyone does have the knowledge they will most likely be excluded by those "higher ups" doing the procuring, got to keep the backhanders for choosing a particular solution amongst the head honchos.

  16. steviebuk Silver badge

    Because

    They don't fucking listen to their engineers!

    "The tales outlined in the paper will be familiar to readers of The Register. Something of a worst-case exemplar is Birmingham City Council's implementation of Oracle HR, finance and procurement.

    The implementation budget has ballooned from £20 million to £131 million (from $25 million to $165 million), as the council failed to successfully create adaptations to make the software fit its needs. The council now plans to re-implement Oracle out of the box. In the meantime it is paying £5.1 million ($6.44 million) for a third party solution to plug the gap."

    Because you chose Oracle. Your engineers probably told you that was a mistake and no doubt, no doubt at all, you fucking ignored them. Oracle charge an arm and a leg and love to randomly audit.

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