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back to article UK.gov told to get a brain in wake of £1bn IT deals collapse

IT suppliers who wasted thousands of pounds bidding for public-sector work that never materialised have urged the government to rethink the way it tenders technology contracts. Firms were left with a financial hangover when the website for the the Application Development Delivery Support Services (ADDSS) framework collapsed …

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Pirate

"We lose £1,000 in billable hours for every 7.5 hours a consultant works on a bid and management attends whole-day buyer events or partner meetings," the insider told The Channel."

I rest my case m'lud. The gov may be brain dead but the bums on seat farmers are the real TOOLS.

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Anonymous Coward

*sigh* your childish idiocy astounds even me.

Very few SMEs have on staff the kind of person skilled in the arcane art of public sector bid management as such most will need to get a third party in to help them perform such a task...

(sorry had to re post - lack of edit function and all...)

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Meh

Fools

You should know that the bidding process is already tied up by the bigger players when Government contracts are concerned. The small guys are only invited or encouraged to bid to make up the numbers so that those in charge can say the bidding was open to all.

The result has already been fixed months before the bidding process starts. You can see how institutionalised this is when you see how many MP's who are responsible for procurement get advisory jobs or when they lose the election or retire they get a seat on the board.

They are all at it and it is a truly bent system.

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Bronze badge

Re: Fools

Oh how I wish it was. Well maybe not, but even for the big boys it's mind bogglingly arcane, and certainly not fixed. We have no ex MPs advising us, not sure any IT companies do. We do have the services of small consultancies made up of ex-first devision civil servants, but then so do all IT companies.

This kind of comment is pointless, its patently not true, do you really think us big boys know the results of bids before we start, we don't, we spend hundreds of thousands of pounds chasing large contracts with about a 1 in 4 chance of winning those we go for, if we know we won't win it in advance, nor would we if we knew we would win it. The point of the procurement process is firstly to prove you can deliver it, oh by the way, by the time procurement ends, the business requirement has usually changed, so you never actually supply what the contract asked for.

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Anonymous Coward

The public sector does seem to have massive problems when sorting out IT. Part of the problem is the so called Consultants who often are not worth the money. Also trying to price fix a large IT contract for a product which needs to adapt and change is naive. Seriously guys you are big enough to do a lot of this in house!

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Ah but then..

.. they couldn't cover theor own arses. I've done plenty of work in the Public Sector, work they are more than capable of doing themselves. I've also been told that the only reason I'm there is so that they can cover their own backsides, "after all the consultant said .... so how can it be my fault"

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Anonymous Coward

Big enough to do this in house

But not competent enough. I've been working on a secondment from my company to a government initiative lately. The government department involved decided that they'd set up a quasi private delivery vehicle. Then they commissioned a very well known management consultancy to set the project up. £5m later, and the consultants have run a mediocre procurement process for some third (or fourth) party to actually do the work, the resultant organisation is not ready to deliver, and key questions like "does anybody want this service?" remain unasked and unanswered.

The incompetence rarely emanates from Westminster (surprisingly enough, given the reservoir of world class dishonesty and ineptitude), but almost always from the civil service. And the civil service appears unfit for purpose, unless you define its purpose as keeping 500,000 in a giant make work scheme to reduce the unemployment figures.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Big enough to do this in house

Your experience does not surprise me in the slightest. I worked in the NHS for a good while and because they decided to contract out different parts of the same application to different people it was unsurprisingly a mess, as you say the reason is to avoid being blamed. They need to Man up get some Devs in and start doing it themselves on common, standardised infrastructure. The project you mention cost the entire turnover of the company I work for. Was it really worth it? We sell ours for £500,000 and I thought that was a lot!.

I do think the Government (and the public) are partially responsible though as it seems that a lot of people play the 'public services are all sh**' game and put them down all the time so that might be why things are so outsourced.

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Big Brother

Re:The public sector does seem to have massive problems when sorting out IT.

You need to split this up, Central Gov Public Sector it, with it's regular political "improvements", as advised by Prize Wally & CockUp, et al.

And Local Authority Public Sector IT, which seems to work most of the time, the exceptions usual having the finger prints of Prize Wally & CockUp, et al. on it.

Given the amount of IT that central gov needs, I have never undestood why they didn't have thier own internal software house, to cover stuff they couldn't buy off the shelf, given profit margins, and lack of ownership involved in getting EDS, Crapita, et al to build bespoke kit?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Re:The public sector does seem to have massive problems when sorting out IT.

I can't comment about local Authority IT being different (having never experienced it). But yes why not have a software department, thats my thought as well. I think they always think their needs are greater than they are, some software I saw in the NHS and the DFT cost many times what they were really worth and most of it was really only a variation on what was already available on the market.

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Anonymous Coward

That's called spreading the blame ..

"The government department involved decided that they'd set up a quasi private delivery vehicle. Then they commissioned a very well known management consultancy to set the project up. £5m later, and the consultants have run a mediocre procurement process for some third (or fourth) party to actually do the work, the resultant organisation is not ready to deliver"

Have you noticed that there's never any clearly identified individual to take the blame in these kind of massive disasters. You can detect such departments by the way, every time you phone, there's a different voice at the other end, with a different title and the old employee being transferred within the organization, on annual leave (twice ?) or left the company. presumably abandoning a sinking ship ...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: That's called spreading the blame ..

"Have you noticed that there's never any clearly identified individual to take the blame in these kind of massive disasters."

Indeed. But the cynical design of the project I've been working on is breathtaking. By using a "private" company, if it all falls flat on its face, the government department have a tiered structure of people to blame:

1. The private company set up for delivery ("it was their fault")

2. The industry sector ("they didn't get behind it")

3. The management consultancy ("the whole design was wrong")

4. Joe Public ("we set the scheme up, but the public refused to use it")

Plenty of musical chairs in both the government department concerned. The £5m in setting it up is dwarfed by overall industry expense in having to follow the scheme (I'd guess about £10m) and loads of other government waste, eg £12m to local government to "get ready" for this scheme, and about £12m promised as handouts to try and make the (probably) unpopular scheme get started.

And in addition, the government department originally promised industry that they wouldn't have to bankroll the scheme, guess what they're now saying?

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Hmmm

Actually a lot of us are very competent and know exactly what we are doing, but didn't you know IT professionals are a commodity procurement item whose cost needs to be forced down. Experience no longer has value. You put some good people on to start with and then replace them with cheaper in-experianced staff who bring in a higher margin. The customer thinks they are getting a good deal on rates, but actually they aren't. Age and experience no longer meet client price points, so the quality and experience is now going to get a whole lot worse.

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Devil's advocate

The problem with tendering for any custom software is evaluating the bids. It's not just a case of choosing the lowest price. You also have to make sure the bidders actually stand a chance of delivering on their promise(s). Oh, and saying "But don't pay them/sue them if they fail to deliver" isn't the solution. As a buyer, your aim is to get your requirements met first time, on time. If you end up calling in lawyers, all you do is delay the work even more and spend lots of money on lawyers.

I have no magic solution to this problem. This is something suppliers, government & lawyers need to work together on.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Devil's advocate

"I have no magic solution to this problem."

I do. Stop allowing arseholes to spend public money without making them personally responsible for any failure. And hold them to account when things do go wrong.

I work alongside people who buy kit to the tune of several hundred million a year. If a contract screws up, they know that unless very clearly proven otherwise it is their fault. If the contractor doesn't deliver, they should have evaluated the possible risks, and selected somebody else. If the contractor goes bust, they didn't carry out proper checks on them. If the business tries to change the spec part way through, then its the buyers fault for not makng sure the requirements were robust against risks of change. And so on.

Sometimes private sector procurement does go wrong. I ran a capital programme that spent about £1bn on infrastructure assets over seven years. We had some things that went wrong (usually for foreseeable reasons that weren't acted on for company political reasons), and we had some overspends. But our average overspend was about 10%, which isn't bad at all on civil and underground investment, and it seems to be a whole lot better than public sector projects, where it is quite routine to waste billions on something that simply never works, or to overspend by huge percentages.

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Big Brother

Re: hold them to account when things do go wrong.

I'm sorry but the democratic process has eliminate accoutabliy.

Liebour got rid of surcharging councillors

ConDem got rid of the independant District Auditor, making Liebour changes irrelvant, as we can not now find any new Shirley Porters to surcharge.

PS

When in the last 20 years has a minister resigned because his department had dropped the ball?

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Unhappy

Re: Devil's advocate

IIRC the usual government IT project overrun is 3x.

That's 00%, which is why % don't make a lot of sense in central IT overspend.

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FAIL

Sour grapes?

Sounds more like certain people were miffed that they had to do work in order to tender a bid, and are upset that, because their tender was not accepted, that that work no has no reward.

Suck it up. When you ask an engineer to tender a bid, they do a lot of work in order to be able to tender. Factored in to the bid is the cost of producing tenders, so if only if they consistently do not win bids does this become a problem, in which case they should look at why they are not winning bids, rather than bitching about the cost of working to submit tenders.

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Stop

Re: Sour grapes?

No

The complaint was that they did lots of work to beat their competitors, and then had the government withdraw the stuff they biding on.

This is why when I have put up tenders in the public sector, I have had the budget codes signed for in blood, before going out to tender.

Where there has been speculative work, I have always made it clear, and answered any questions around the possibility of the work being canned, so that the vendors can make a risk management decision on how much time and money they want to sink into the prep work.

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Re: Sour grapes?

"The complaint was that they did lots of work to beat their competitors, and then had the government withdraw the stuff they biding on."

Yes - but that is always a risk. ITTs can be withdrawn and the customer is not obliged either to issue a contract or to sign a contract. I've written a few tenders that weren't successful - there's no point crying over it. If you don't like the risks, don't tender for public sector work.

The harsh reality is that some ITTs are issued because open competition is demanded by procurement rules but the folk writing the ITT have every intention of giving the work to an incumbent supplier - the competitors tendering are wasting their time.

If the customer knew how to build systems that could manage their tender process, they might not need need the services of contractors to do such things for them.

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Pint

Re: Sour grapes?

Lilke most taxpayers with an iota of knowledge about IT, I'm endlessly astonished at the degree of incompetence that IT procurement seems to reveal. But I'm interested and ignorant on the question procurement rules - so please JohnG, could you clarify whether the procurement rules of which you speak prevent the customer from directly employing its own people to do the work?

And if they don't, why doesn't the public sector employ more techies directly?

Pint, for anyone who can explain why public-sector procurers continue to use a system whose record clearly shows that it doesn't work. And because it's Friday and I need one.

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Re: Sour grapes?

The reason the government doesn't do what most people would recognise as the obvious cheaper better option is actually quite simple, those options are better for private companies/individuals but the government doesn't operate like a normal company and the usual incentives are reversed.

If a project goes over budget then the project manager can now put down a £200mil project on his CV instead of a £100mil project.

If a departments staff and have a huge backlog of work, they are obviously overloaded and under funded and the department needs a bigger budget for more staff, oh and as the number of people in the team has increased obviously the manager needs a pay rise to reflect the increased responsibility, etc.

That's why government projects manage to blow through huge piles of cash without ever achieving anything, they are rewarded for blowing through cash and punished for achieving anything! That's before you even start on the companies circling the gravy train sucking it dry (with full government support).

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Sour grapes?

Public sector has been unable to retain quality technical staff because many years ago they had a policy of outsourcing anything technical as the private sector was perceived as being more competent and cost effective. Unfortunately they were so successful at removing skilled in-house staff that they didn't leave anyone with the right technical skills required to manage these outsource contracts. This policy is still in place and is rigorously supported by the generalist admin staff who take every opportunity to protect their positions.

Some Depts do have in-house technical staff but they are underpaid and understaffed and spend most of their time trying to justify their existence which often results in them being less effective than they should be.

People need to realise that those with real power in the public sector are the bean counters, generalists and the Sir Humphreys who like to play power games rather than techies who usually like to get the job done.

Shame there are no stats for civil servants taking early retirement and redundancy showing their skill sets as I'm sure they will show that the civil service have lost a lot of their skilled/knowledgeable resources required to manage these types of projects.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Sour grapes?

Well, I got a job at a very senior level in a large gov dept because they needed my specialist technical skills and had to make me senior to give me a market rate. So what happened? After two years of succesfully changing the org culture there was a re-organisation and my job was shifted to someone else who didn't have my skills over a plate of chips in a pub up near *********.

so because I'm at a senior level I'm now doing something I haven't got any experience in 'cos were all generalists now. We have no IT Specialists in my dept at all.

Go figure why it's all f*cked up. Pensions good though,.

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Big Brother

Re: Sour grapes?

When I was running an IT team supporting a large unitary, the reason that I would go to tender rather than build, is time, risk and cost.

Despite being an ex-coder myself, and enjoying designing and building stuff, as an IT manager my approach was always "can we buy" first, and only then "can we build it"

Off the Shelf kit is always going to be cheaper than DIY, usually between half the price, to 1/10th, dependant on the size of that market (i.e. Planning systems are only needed in planning authorities)

If you use software used by 100 identical authorities, all the "features" of the system have been found and worked round, and deployment time is constrained by duration of ITT, and availability of installers and staff for training.

My in-house team got used for stuff that was unquie, hence one of the selling points for working for 70% of what you could get at a comercial IT shop, was lots of different and interesting work, that makes a difference (on ocaasion potentially life saving differences)

Some times the UK/EU procurement rules get a bit daft if enforced to the letter of the law, and your head of procurement is unwilling to sign waivers, ie. you should not have to advertise for the better part of 3 months, when there are only 2 companies with the software ready to go.

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So the system for keeping track of bids for projects

needs replacing? Yo dawg...

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Gold badge

The UK civil service is somewhat like al qaeda

It's not really centralized.

Every department (and possibly agencies) has their own payroll.

It's all about the "We are so special no one can handle our special needs."

I think the idea of a Civil Service wide software house is brilliant, but it would be pretty big, given the huge range of platforms, development languages, operating systems etc.

I'd love to find out how things that are run Civil Service wide (I'm pretty sure some do exist, but I'm not sure what they are) were established and maintain ongoing support (IE avoid "departmental capture").

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Unhappy

Re: Devil's advocate

IIRC the usual government IT project overrun is 3x.

That's 300%, which is why % don't make a lot of sense in central IT overspend.

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There were so many posts here that i wanted to reply to, thought it would be easier to say it all in one chunk rtather than lots of little bitty replies.

The main government departments DID used to each have their own IT departments - they were organisations in their own right each employing thousands of staff, so it was well worth them doing all their IT in house. But government policy for many years was to be able to announce that they had reduced the size of the civil service, and the easiest way to do this without doing significantly less work was to outsource whole functions - that way they could say "look, we've cut the civil service by 10%". Of course it would cost more in the long run but hey, the headline was what mattered.

Another issue was the old mind-set that cheap civil servant = crap, expensive consultancy = good. Many years ago I was one of the comparatively low paid civil service IT bods (when I left I got a 30% raise in wages for a lower level job). I had a rather good idea which I passed on, only for it to be dismissed out of hand. So i got one of my contractor mates to submit the same idea - this time the idea was at least read & thought about (he was much more expensive than I was), then rejected. A couple of months later some senior manager brought in a very expensive consultancy to review the work of the department and after weeks & weeks of footling around they came up with exactly the same idea. THIS time it was fallen upon with cries of glee as the solution to all our ills, and the consultancy was paid an enormous sum to implement this process change.

My third point is around all those who are saying they should get their own devs in to do the work. I agree there is more than enough government work to make it worth while having their own permanent devs. Unfortunately the way the grading system works they will never get decent devs, as your role defines what grade you are & therefore what you get paid. In my field a permanent staff member should be paid between £45-55k, but when I applied for a civil service job at the top end of the skill set a couple of years ago the max salary was around £35k. Yes we all hear about highly paid civil servants, but there's a massive gap between senior management & other grades - someone I know is earning the absolute max for the grade he is, but if he gets a promotion he will be one of the "senior management" grades & automatically get about 15% pay rise to take him to the very bottom of the scale for the new grade - and devs are classed comparatively low down in the structure. How many really decent devs will work for £28k a year in central London? The AC at 18:10 was very lucky that he was able to get that job, must have been a particularly open minded department!

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Thanks but.....

Not that enlightened sadly. Just been bollocked at my mid year for not being as good at my new job as someone with twenty years experience, while the poor sod who gets to do the thing that I have 20 years of experience and multiple certifications in gets a similar bollocking for not being as good as me.

Lunatic meet asylum...... you'll get on well together.

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Anonymous Coward

The Cabinet Office said ...

The new approach will allow suppliers to select which procurement opportunities are best suited to their capability"

What ?

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Re: The Cabinet Office said ...

“The new approach will allow suppliers to select which procurement opportunities are best suited to their capability" - basically means "don't bother unless you're an enormous monolithic entity, but we're still paying lip service to using SMEs as that makes us look good"

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