Towers of strength

A recent round table explored how replacing big outsourced IT contracts with more flexible, managed “tower” arrangements has impacted government’s use of technology.

In August, the UK government was ordered to pay £224m to Raytheon after it sacked the American corporation for failing to deliver the e-Borders programme. It was the latest in a long line of high-profile problems that Whitehall has encountered while contracting for new IT systems.

Those failures have led to calls for the adoption of a more flexible regime for procuring technological solutions, and one that gives government more direct control over delivery instead of packaging everything – PCs, storage, databases and software – out to a few big service providers on long-term contracts.

Many departments are responding by adopting a “tower” approach under which services are bought separately from a range of IT providers. This model frequently requires the creation of a service integration and management function (SIAM) to oversee and co-ordinate suppliers. Civil Service World, together with IT service provider Atos, organised a round table to discuss what experience has taught civil servants about successfully adopting the tower and SIAM model.

Benefits of the tower model

The theory behind tower IT is that it allows an organisation to bring in specialist providers, enables the commissioning of more work from small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), fosters competition to reduce costs and allows for a swifter, more tailored reaction to evolving needs or problems.

The Ministry of Justice is one of government’s earliest adopters of the SIAM/tower model. “We have finished the vast majority of our procurement phase although we still have some way to go before rolling out and delivering services through the SIAM model,” said the MoJ’s Justin Williams.

“Our goals are reducing cost, providing an enterprise-wide technology solution, leveraging economies of scale, but also increasing competition, enabling us to turn on new services in a more seamless fashion, and supporting the huge amount of organisational change we have going on in the ministry,” he added.

David Walbrook from Home Office Technology explained how disaggregated IT scores over “monolithic” contracts with a single service provider: “The advantage of a multi-sourced environment is that you get more experts from particular fields and areas of service, whereas the monoliths are probably jacks of all trades. You can decrease time to market [for new systems] and you can develop capability that suits your area of work.”

However, Anushka Nagpal from the MoJ’s SIAM assurance team warned against “jumping onto the bandwagon” of the SIAM-tower model, which might not be appropriate for every organisation: “There isn’t a single rule of thumb that shows this is a model that is relevant in each scenario. I think it depends on the organisation, the scale and complexity of the contracts you have. You must also not lose sight of the requirements of the end users. One needs to take a holistic view rather than just saying: ‘should we go for the SIAM-tower contracts?’” she said.

In or outsourced SIAM?

One of the big questions facing departments adopting the tower model is how much of the service integration function should they retain themselves, and how much should be outsourced to the private sector?

Philip Chalmers, vice president for the public sector at Atos, says the firm is working with seven SIAM-related customers, sometimes advising them on how to build the SIAM, sometimes acting as the SIAM or in some cases supplying services as one of the tower providers.

“There is not one SIAM model. We have not found two approaches that are identical yet,” observed Chalmers. “There are a variety of issues that lead to each organisation choosing to in-house the integration function, or partnering with [an IT service provider] to do it, or putting it entirely out to a partner.”

For some departments the issue is how much of their existing IT team to retain. Chalmers’ colleague at Atos, Andy Grant, is a former civil servant who worked on the early stages of the MoJ’s transition to tower IT. He explained that part of the rationale for adopting the model was to reduce duplication between the IT functions of the courts, probation and prison services.

Peter Forbes, the Crown Prosecution Service’s ICT procurement programme lead, revealed that at the CPS the question is reversed because its IT services and management functions have hitherto been almost completely outsourced. “My challenge is to convince people that they can do it in-house, that they should take responsibility. They are comfortable with somebody else looking after IT, but unfortunately that is not necessarily the most effective way of doing it,” he said. “We are getting the steer from Cabinet Office that because we had outsourced everything we should consider building the SIAM in-house.”

Skills and training

But do departments have the necessary skills for effective in-house IT service management? “At the CPS we are going to do a skills audit, find out what the gap is and up-skill or recruit,” said Forbes.

Departments should train existing staff better as well as recruiting new talent, argued Simon Black, head of live service at the Home Office. “People have potential and skills, but are often confined by the rules, guidelines and perceptions that we give them. If we change that dynamic we can realise capability, but that means changing governance, training programmes and accountability. In a SIAM-type environment you need empowerment. You can’t do everything through one governance body across multiple suppliers,” he said.

Commander Andy Rowlands from the MoD said that, in Afghanistan, outside contractors contributed to improving the technical skills of troops: “We embedded them next to soldiers for an extended period to do technical performance management on the [IT] infrastructures. After we withdrew the contractors, the number of incidents that were being reported back to the UK to fix dropped off a cliff. That was SIAM in action, drawing on the skills and then building the capability from there,” he claimed.

IT businesses have begun to show more inclination to help public sector organisations to build up service management capacity, observed Andy Goodsir from the Forestry Commission: “Over the last year to 18 months, I have noticed an increased appetite to come and help, give out advice and guidance,” he said.

Managing the transition

Moving to a tower and SIAM model can be a complex and time-consuming business. Martin Coleman, ICT funding advisor at the Education Funding Agency, argued that it is not the procurement process that causes delays, but the decision making that underlies it: “Often people launch into the procurement before they are ready. That adds time and cost. Know what your vision is and what your strategy for getting there is before you even think about writing your tender documents,” he advised.

Williams agreed that the public sector has not always been good at spelling out what it requires from suppliers. “Government has always been criticised in the past about not being very specific, or not being able to describe what we need very well. We need to become a more informed customer as we introduce the tower model, because there is some complexity to it,” he said.

The relative novelty of tower IT and the complexity of big public sector bodies combine to make it difficult to know what the ideal SIAM model looks like in a government context. Stuart Beauchamp from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency said: “It is constantly evolving at the moment. There is not a lot of precedent to work off. We haven’t really had anybody come out of the other end with a SIAM model to look at and hold up as an example.”

Scale, complexity and the importance of maintaining continuity of service all mean that restructuring a government department’s IT contracts is no small task, suggested Home Office’s Black: “We have got over 500 different systems and services that we operate across 30,000-35,000 customers. Our services touch many people and some of them are critical national infrastructure, so our challenge is moving to another model while still ensuring that we manage the risk to reputation, because at any time we could be causing the home secretary grief if a service drops out,” he said.

Black added that new contracts under the tower model must take into account the ongoing management and cost of running IT services, as well as their set-up: “Too many of our contracts have been weighted towards the project delivery and haven’t necessarily been about how you manage those services in a business as usual capability,” he argued.

Working with multiple suppliers

Moving to tower IT does not mean government departments ditching the big systems integrators altogether, but they will need to find ways of working with a number of suppliers, some of which will be small firms, rather than just a single IT partner.

“We know what the likes of Atos and Fujitsu do, how they work, but we are now into a bunch of new SME suppliers too and we are only ever as good as the collective end-to-end service,” said Black. “To successfully deliver these models we must understand our new supplier base better and help them understand our ways of working.”

Suppliers within the towers will need to work with each other if services are to operate seamlessly. “One of the things we have noticed from being tower providers as well as being a SIAM is it puts an onus on us to behave in a much more collaborative way with organisations that normally we would be competing against,” said Atos’s Chalmers.

Measures to encourage contractors to work together have been built into the MoJ SIAM model, said Williams: “When you have a very large service being provided by a number of different providers, as is the case with the tower model, it is absolutely essential that people are working together effectively,” he argued.

Complying with the reform agenda

While departments are working to put tower IT structures in place, they also need to respond to the digital element of the wider civil service reform agenda, said Williams. “The tower model and the services delivered through it need to adapt to the challenges from a new set of colleagues in the Government Digital Service (GDS), who are looking to us to deliver services in new and sometimes very radically different ways.”

Goodsir added that GDS has helped Defra to set up tower structures: “Defra programmes have benefited a lot from GDS advice around how to set up the SIAM and what sort of configuration it might have,” he said.

Rabeya Begum from the Legal Aid Agency asked Black how the aims of the SIAM/tower programme have been communicated to staff at the Home Office: “Where people are actually affected by this whole IT transformation, how much do they know?” she queried. “There is a real requirement for a culture change because people’s working styles are completely changing. Not everybody is receptive of change if they don’t understand what is happening.”

Black answered: “We are going through a Home Office transformation as well as a move to greater use of shared services, and to greater flexibility in technology, so we have layers of transformation. We are communicating a vision of what the Home Office is about and then describing what tools we have to do that with. We will have less funding and yet we will have greater demand from our users for services, so we are pitching the SIAM-type technology work as a component in the wider change within government.”

The next stage

At the conclusion of the discussion the attendees discussed how the tower IT model might evolve in the future. Chalmers introduced the concept of “government as a platform”, by which government uses technology to ensure that information produced by and on behalf of citizens is treated as a national asset. Citizens then use that information to spark innovation that results in improved governance.

“If we can make these towers work within individual departments, the next stage is that information can be commoditised and processes shared across departments, so you start to get government as a platform,” he suggested.

Williams agreed that was the long-term aim, but argued that government should be looking towards the near future first: “Everything we do must be looked at through the next spending review. There is no point in having any principles until we work out how to deliver value for money services in new ways. Tower and the SIAM model have a role to play in that,” he said.

The introduction of the tower-SIAM model to government is a complex task and to many it will also seem an obscure one. However, as part of the wider transformation of the way in which the civil service employs technology, these new structures could be waymarks along the road to a new model of government.

Colin Marrs

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