‘Get things right at the start’ – new playbook sets out rules to be applied to all government digital projects

Document covers issues such as assessments of suppliers and delivery models, and upfront consideration of potential issues with legacy IT

Credit: Shahid Abdullah/Pixabay

A new ‘playbook’ sets out rules to be applied to all government digital projects to help them “get things right from the start”.

Published today, the Digital, Data and Technology Playbook sets out 11 “key policy reforms which will transform how we assess, procure and manage our products and services”. Alongside these are six “cross-cutting priorities” for government’s use of technology.

The guidelines will be applicable to an estimated £46bn of digital projects undertaken each year across the public sector.

All new or upcoming DDaT projects led by central government departments or arm’s-length bodies – including the delivery of online public services, as well as the procurement or hardware, software and IT services – will be required to meet the demands set out in the document “on a ‘comply or explain’ basis”. For organisations in the wider public sector, the guidelines are “expected to be taken into account”.

The first of the policy reforms – albeit one that has seemingly been in effect for some years already – is that departments must maintain an 18-month pipeline of planned commercial activity. These plans must contain “sufficient detail and certainty”, the playbook added. 

A requirement for a 15-month pipeline was first introduced in 2018, as part of a revamp of the Cabinet Office-operated spend controls.

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The next three policy objectives all relate to improving initial assessments before undertaking projects. Departments are asked to fully assess “market health and capability”, the implications for cybersecurity, and the possible delivery models that could be used – including the extent to which the project should be fulfilled by civil servants and external contractors or outsourcers.

In addition to these assessments, more detailed review of “the economic and financial standing of bidders for DDaT projects” must also be incorporated into the procurement process – including the award of “frameworks for non-critical contracts”.

“As well as informing the selection itself, financial assessments and ongoing monitoring of financial performance should inform risk-management activity during the life of the project,” the playbook added.

For services that require “being delivered in a new way, contracting authorities should undertake a programme of iteration to understand the environment, constraints, requirements, risks and opportunities”.

Contracts should be reformed with the aim of being better “structured to drive collaboration, improve value for money, and deliver a sustainable, resilient and effective relationship, focused on outcomes”. 

Suppliers and public bodies should also commit to interoperability and open standards.

“Software should be open-source and designed to allow access in a platform-agnostic way,” the playbook said. “Data should be shared using consistent methods, and primarily with APIs which conform to Central Digital and Data Office API technical and data standards, satisfy the requirements of the Technology Code of Practice and are well documented.”

Tackling legacy IT is another policy reform set out in the strategy document, which instructs departments to “ensure that all software is kept up-to-date and in mainstream support for the duration of the contract and plan early for when contracts end, including any extensions”.

Greater consideration of sustainability should also be included at the outset, with government bodies asked to “ensure products and services comply with obligations to improve environmental, economic and social sustainability”.

The final policy shift will see suppliers of “critical DDaT contracts” required to include information on contingency plans in case of disaster or insolvency.

Again, this appears to be near-identical to measures put in place in 2018; following the collapse of Carillion, major suppliers across government have been required to include a so-called “living will” in contracts, in which they set out in detail how, in their event of their going bust, another firm could take over the engagement.

The six “cross-cutting priorities” that these policy reforms are intended to support are: 

  • taking an outcome-based approach
  • avoiding and remediation legacy IT
  • being cybsersecure by design
  • enabling innovation
  • driving sustainability
  • and levelling the playing field for SMEs

‘Avoid costly mistakes later on’
The playbook sets out various measures to be taken at certain checkpoints, beginning from when a project is first being defined in outline, through to exiting commercial contracts following the programme’s completion.

Departments are expected to ensure compliance with the playbook via their own “governance processes”. This will be reinforced – where applicable – by HM Treasury’s approvals process and Cabinet Office controls.

For projects and tenders that are already underway, departments “should adopt a pragmatic approach to embedding the DDaT Playbook, by taking all reasonable steps to embed the principles and policies at the appropriate stage of development”. 

“There is no expectation to restart in-train projects and programmes or re-let existing frameworks,” the document said.

The playbook was published by government’s DDaT profession. In a joint foreword with government chief commercial officer Gareth Rhys-Williams, head of the digital profession Joanna Davinson stressed the crucial importance of starting projects on the right foot.

“The Digital, Data and Technology Playbook is focused on getting things right from the start,” they wrote. “Setting projects and programmes up for success can take more time upfront but we know from past experience that this early investment can be repaid many times over by enabling us to avoid costly mistakes later on. Changing our approach to procurement in this sector will allow us to learn from successes and failures across government and industry.”

In a statement, minister for government efficiency Jacob Rees-Mogg added: “This playbook will draw on the wealth of digital expertise at our disposal to produce better services at lower cost. This will go hand-in-hand with a new procurement regime that takes advantage of our position outside the European Union, offering more opportunities for small businesses to bid for government contracts, encouraging greater innovation in public services and ultimately delivering better value for taxpayers.”


Sam Trendall

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