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back to article Will small biz get a bite of mega UK.gov IT pie? Yes: if it can pass the bulls**t sniff test

Does the UK government have a chance of being able to push 25 per cent of IT spend onto SMEs as it has promised? The correct answer is perhaps it does, but it doesn't actually matter either way. However, the reason why it doesn't matter is what's interesting to the economists among us. The exact and detailed reasons as to why …

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Not entirely true

"As everyone who has ever run a successful project knows, the first thing to do is to get the specifications right."

True to an extent but as everyone who has run a successful project also knows, users rarely know what they want before they start the project. If your definition of successful is delivering the project and getting paid, it's fine to try and set the requirements in stone before you start. If you want a system which is actually useful you have to be prepared to refine the requirements as you go along - that's what agile is all about,

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Not entirely true

You are correct - refinement is a key requirements, but….

1. refining shit gets you a finer grade of shit - achievable goals are important and that means talking to the users/PBI (poor bloody infantry) as well as the people signing (note I did not say paying) the cheques

2. government sh1t is bad - the ability to afford step 1 (even if many of the usual culprits could not give a damn about doing so - their money comes from rework and requirements change) is a big barrier

3. governments are often run by morons who have seen a nice bit of shiny tech - hey iPads will get everyone back to work - and just want it. Don't need just want. Retaining some self respect tends to be the province of smaller organisations - but it does not win contracts.

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Look at the reality

I have just tendered for a contract (not IT), the initial application demanded that I fill in a 'pre-application' form that ran into 228 questions. This was to narrow the field down to the 'last' 16 who will then be invited to tender for the contract. Each question was weighted to a value. Under 75/100 and your 'pre-application' would exclude you.

They asked for HSE, acceptance of government credit cards, environmental policy, discrimination policy, equal opportunities policy, whether I would need to invest, cost of sub-contractors, bank statements, 6 business references, details of contracts we hold, value of contracts we hold most valuable contracts.....

I could go on and on and on...

At around Question 160 I began to realise that the whole process was weighted in favour of national facilities companies, subtle questions here and there began appearing that pretty much excluded any small to medium sized business and reduced the overall mark out of 100.

But I Persevered and filled in the forms just to be pedantic.

All this for a contract that they stated would be worth no more than £7000 over 4 years and covered the Northwest of England.

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Anonymous Coward

Still waiting

Quoted for maintenance work for a number of Crown Courts ...... 3 years ago, asked to re-quote 2 years ago and then again a year ago but now instead of dealing directly with the courts it is now with G4S, for the same work.

As of today still waiting and no closer, but I understand G4S are using their own people now.

Small businesses are used to make up the numbers so that they (Gov) can say there is a level playing field, which it is not.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Look at the reality

This sums up most public sector tenders, however you say that you may be excluded if you get less than 75/100, but you will also be excluded if you get 95/100 if there are 16 people who get 96/100 or better.

Remember it's not if you can do the job, it's about how big/good your tendering team is

Public sector is ALL about removing responsibility from the purchaser, if they followed proceure, they have absolved themselves of any responsibility, they may well have paid more for it, however that's OK, as we all know they have a money tree (you and me)

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Boffin

Unfair Assumption

From the article:

The second thing is that government is the archetypal simple shopper. "We'd like a computer system please but we don't really know quite what one we'd like": face it, salesmen dream of moments like this.

As everyone who has ever run a successful project knows, the first thing to do is to get the specifications right. Only once you've have, written in stone, what the system is going to do and how it is going to do it, can you possibly start to bring in anyone to start building it for you.

That is unfair - to say that government doesn't *know* what it wants isn't necessarily true in many cases. Those in government departments might know *exactly* what they want but the procurement rules prevent stating too specifically, a mixture of treasury, national and EU rules. Specs must be "only as specific as they need to be" and state the minimum necessary level of capability.

The principle is that the government departments must not get too narrow minded and supposedly thinking too specifically will limit the department from identifying any savings or alternative and novel ways of acheiving an objective (or solving a problem) *. However, it could often be argued that this would mean that specs are left too vague for the system/solution to be implemented properly. This isn't limited to software projects but software seems to be less easy to contain within open requirements than other areas of procurement.

But to say this is ignorance from the department rather than, say, accountants making rules in areas for which they do not have expertise, is unfair IMHO.

* - For more info, have a read of 'Investment Appraisal'.

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Anonymous Coward

We're actually seeing this beginning to get traction in UK government departments. Even the most traditionally insular ones like HMRC, whose 'Aspire' contract with Capgemini still has old crusties from its ICL days doing batch mainframe processing, are genuinely at least considering SMEs and open source software.

HMRC just put off signing a massive database rationalisation project in favour of re-launching the discovery phase with a total focus on SMEs and OSS. Rather than an out-of-the-enterprise-playbook standard Teradata solution at £15,000 per TB, they're now seeing unheard-of companies coming to them with genuinely innovative NoSQL solutions with no licensing costs and all the flexibility an organisation like HMRC needs to make its cost savings.

Of course, the cynic in me thinks that in all probability they'll just get bored after christmas and go throw money at Capgemini to implement the traditional warehousing solution (it has essentially zero risk, if nothing else), but the noises coming out of HMRC are very, very positive right now.

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Govt contracting - cluster fecks and the public money tree

Govt contracting is infected with billy big bollox, wanting an all encompassing solution to world peace, for a cheap as chips price, for a decade long contract term with no accountability in Govt and all risk transferred to the successful bidder

and yet

they cannot articulate the need, the benefit or scope of the requirement; often compounding this situation by seeing no value in the preferred bidder doing a detailed needs analysis before final contracting.

That how we get all too common HS2 projects / contracts, Aircraft Carriers contracts and PFI hospital deals..........PFI schools blah blah........

All too depressing when one reflects on the fact that these tossers squander so much public money.

Contract for lightbulb supply and installation at £2000 a pop anyone?.................please!!!!

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Anonymous Coward

"As everyone who has ever run a successful project knows, the first thing to do is to get the specifications right. Only once you've have, written in stone, what the system is going to do and how it is going to do it, can you possibly start to bring in anyone to start building it for you."

What an absolute nonsense. Requirements are never set in stone and projects can and are still delivered successfully. Requirements "set in stone" mean your customer doesnt know what they want and will get something they don't need. Requirements change. Constantly. It's your job to deal with that, and that's why everyone who has ever run a successful project know, the first thing to do is get the PEOPLE right. Only once you have the right kind of people can you tackle anything the customer throws at you.

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MnM

ewww.

Eschewing waterfall for agile does not mean you have to hug trees.

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"...we should only consider the interests of the producer insofar as that is important to the consumer.

An extension of this is that we really don't care who produces something but we do care that it is produced."

Surprisingly for me, I was broadly with you up until here. The extension only follows if the consumer is utterly indifferent to the producer - Smith comment does not mandate that. If the end result is functionally equivalent then there may be many reasons to actively choose a particular producer, e.g. an SME over a established multi-national. Indeed some may hope that consideration of the producer, given functional equivalence of the product, is something that might potentially have a beneficial effect to the system - unless one is deliberately trying to achieve some extreme form of free corporate capitalism.

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Not so fast.

"As everyone who has ever run a successful project knows, the first thing to do is to get the specifications right. Only once you've have, written in stone, what the system is going to do and how it is going to do it, can you possibly start to bring in anyone to start building it for you."

IMHO (which to be fair smart people pay good $ for)

The reason why projects fail is the over-emphasis on knowing every tiny detail up front because details change. Worse still pedants and people with agendas use the details to score points, devouring productivity. Concentrate on the big picture first. Get into the detail at the right time.

See wikipedia under "Agile".

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Re: Not so fast.

Agile or no, the government tends to have trouble getting past the "big picture" stage. Never mind the details...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Not so fast.

I've helped out with bidding on a few government contracts, and one thing strikes me very clearly. Often the government will put out a tender for a fixed price contract with the most unbelievably vague scope. I sketched out the technical approach for a recent bid and helped write up the proposal, in the end when we did our delivery review there was an unknown level of risk due to unclear requirements.

We ended up proposing a time and materials discovery phase to work out what the hell they actually want! The government definitely needs to spend more time at least getting an agreed vision for a project before jumping straight into procurement.

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Anonymous Coward

we're all people

As someone pointed out earlier, projects are delivered by people. I'd like you to try a little thought experiment. Imagine you work for an SME. Unfortunately that SME has just gone bust, because they were not very good at managing the government department's total inability to make a decision. The only job you can get is working for an SI - it doesn't really matter if it's Capgemini, CSC, CGI, IBM, HPES... Now, have you just become a totally incompetent and fundamentally venal and dishonest person? Thought not.

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Unhappy

I get the impression Govt projects *never* plan for change

So everything get re-written with some assumption that X would never change turns out to be so much BS.

Taxes. Never going to change pretty much every thing about them (what, what is applied to what, how the "what" is calculated).

I'll note that while the UK does not have FAR I'm quite sure they have some equivalent pile of BS to work through, most of which to the average SME look like stereo instructions.

Maybe people will have a better idea of what they want before they start ordering it be built ASAP.

I've had a sh**ty day and I can hope tomorrow might be a better one.

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Re: I get the impression Govt projects *never* plan for change

One problem is that Governments themselves change and the new guys always like to fiddle with what the previous lot started, like a dog marking a lamppost. National ID card scheme, billions spent, new guys arrive, project is canned. Taxes go up, taxes go down, new regulations for married couples, special exemptions here and there, small businesses get special treatment (good and bad) etc. Setting up a major project with deliverables beyond an election is going to involve change like it or no.

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Re: I get the impression Govt projects *never* plan for change

Taxes go up, taxes go down, new regulations for married couples, special exemptions here and there...

In most systems things like this are expected to be variable. Taxes may go up and down, they may be charged on different things and calculated in different ways, but the basic principle of taxation doesn't change. The rules change, even if the requirement to follow rules is fixed.

That's the difference between a computer system and, say, a clock. One is adaptable, the other always does the same thing.

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Unhappy

Re: I get the impression Govt projects *never* plan for change

> the basic principle of taxation doesn't change <

I'm not so sure. The principles do change.

To take one possible change in the pipeline - married couples' allowances. Might the (re-)introduction of that hose your data model and code base - or could it handle that with just a soft configuration change?

(Well outside my domain - would genuinely like to know).

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Thumb Up

Re: old wine, new bottles

Awesome list.

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Anonymous Coward

GDS doing what it can not what it should.

'It’s a single, centralized portal to pretty much everything the British government might be able to do for you.'

So GDS is delivering the opposite of the Open Public Services White paper - the one that said 'the old centralized approach to public service delivery is broken' http://files.openpublicservices.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/OpenPublicServices-WhitePaper.pdf

Oh and how much of GDS work has resulted in code back to the open source projects they are using or are we at risk of maintaining closed bespoke forks at public cost?

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BRILLIANT article

So VERY TRUE. I once worked for a supplier to government and was horrified by the number of people employed (at public expense) to do IT procurement. And, from their Invitations to tender, they clearly had little or no idea either about what was wanted, or how IT systems worked, let alone how to have a cost-justified system..

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