back to article Government in-sourcing: It was never going to be that easy

Having thrown out the baby with the bathwater in its "outsource everything" drive beginning nearly two decades ago, Whitehall is now keen to bring tech staff back in-house. But how much roadmap does it have for breaking its soon-to-expire mega deals and for "transforming" IT? The chief exec of the civil service, John Manzoni, …

  1. Ye Gads

    Yeah, right

    So let me get this straight:

    You want your project managers to manage outsourced teams and vendors, you want to have architects who design but never actually do and you want to keep your existing procurement.

    Cost in time and money increases when you put organisational lines between people trying to develop systems. It's hard enough when internal teams collaborate; having inter-organisational teams is even worse.

    And as for buying in talent from large consultancies... Really? I mean, come on. Really? Do they really still believe that?

    I await even more government delivery fail.

    1. Voland's right hand Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: Yeah, right

      And as for buying in talent from large consultancies...

      That is a valid proposition. If you write it correctly: And as for buying in "talent" from large consultancies...

    2. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

      Re: Yeah, right

      "And as for buying in talent from large consultancies... Really?"

      Good point. In my experience, once a process has been outsourced, the consultancies and vendors (the smart ones) keep an eye on their customer. If they see someone with talent, they grab them quickly. The employees that move in the other direction are typically ones that the vendor can afford to lose. Or they are looking to get on board with a fat, juicy customer with a great retirement plan for their last few years.

  2. Keef

    The Answer is...

    "The answer is not to bring it all back in house," he said. "Instead have the very best in four key areas of skill: project management, architecture and design, procurement, and finance. You need to own those from top to bottom, then you contract out delivery in the pieces that make sense,"

    So:

    "You need to own those from top to bottom"

    Then:

    "contract out delivery in the pieces that make sense"

    I smell BS.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      I don't think that the statement itself is wrong, there are big companies that do exactly that - but those big companies have high-level management that make the decisions and then, when it has become corporate policy, no one goes against it.

      What we have here is the prospect of capable people eventually being found and hired as middle management at best, then being continually overridden and denied by the same clueless upper management that is partly responsible for the current situation in the first place.

      Because I don't think those project managers and architects are going to be hired as directors, do you ?

      1. Ken 16 Silver badge
        Holmes

        Not as Directors

        But as an architect I expect to report directly to the Director and spend significant time ensuring they understand the technical implications of their decisions. That's the job.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Not as Directors

          I think your post hints at the real motivation behind government outsourcing; reduced costs/value-for-money are plausible excuses, but the real reason is avoidance of responsibility.

          Where work is done in-house you need to ensure your boss understands what he's demanding of you so that he can't turn around afterwards and say that you haven't done what he said, but this means that he needs to both justify and accept responsibility for his decisions. Responsibility remains 'in-house' and is easy to identify.

          When a project is outsourced though, all that the provider needs do is satisfy the spec, regardless of whether what was specified actually matched what was required, or even whether it was complete nonsense; the PHB didn't need to understand the problem/requirement in the first place and there was no-one in a position to point this out to them. End result is that neither the PHB, nor the provider have to accept responsibility - they can both argue that the other has made the mistake.

    2. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

      Re: The Answer is...

      "then you contract out delivery in the pieces that make sense"

      In some industries, it works. My TV set was designed by a group of engineers somewhere in California. The design was shipped off to China. And a pretty good product was built.

      But this works better with consumer products. Particularly the kind where once a part goes bad or an early version is buggy, its easier to scrap the unit and buy the latest model. That's more difficult to do with products/systems that you need to keep running and upgraded. With manufacturing (or coding) outside the design loop, it is often easier to let everything slide until it becomes really bad and then start over from scratch.

  3. IHateWearingATie

    Bottom line...

    Government IT is very difficult and there probably isn't only one model that works. With the dynamic environment I doubt any department will find a perfect model/

    Of course, that doesn't stop all the commentards who've never been on the sharp end of trying to design and build systems that have to deal with the most difficult members of society as their core business coming out with the usual "they're all idiots, I'm so clever and great that if they employed me it would all be fine" line.

    Public sector screws up all the time - but in my experience so does the private sector, you just never hear about it as companies keep that stuff quiet.

    1. Keef

      Re: Bottom line...

      "Of course, that doesn't stop all the commentards who've never been on the sharp end of trying to design and build systems that have to deal with the most difficult members of society as their core business coming out with the usual "they're all idiots, I'm so clever and great that if they employed me it would all be fine" line."

      Thank you for knowing me and all other commentards so well.

      We'll all just shut up forever.

      The comments section is now yours forever, yours and yours alone.

      Enjoy!

      1. IHateWearingATie

        Re: Bottom line...

        "We'll all just shut up forever.

        The comments section is now yours forever, yours and yours alone."

        Good - I don't play well with others.

        Unless they have a large wodge of cash to give me

  4. Andrew 6

    "One source pointed out that for all their manifold faults, there are certain benefits to using vendors, as they are able to pay reasonable salaries, they don't need to put one-third pension contributions in, staff have a career ladder that can take them across businesses as well as across clients, they invest in comprehensive training, and they can sack people that don't perform."

    Does this imply that the public sector pays unreasonable salaries (high or low) and cant sack people who don't perform?? .... oh hang on .... ignore me ....

  5. Blofeld's Cat
    Flame

    Hmm...

    A good starting point for a lot of government IT projects should be: "Do we actually need to do this at all?" Just because a salesman consultant says something is possible, it does not follow that it is desirable.

    I'm thinking in particular of the "minor" tweaks to existing projects, made by politicians with a personal axe to grind, or who just want to be seen to be doing something.

    Most of these projects seem to become hopelessly locked in an endless cycle of further "requirements" until they are finally abandoned with no useful end product, or their costs far exceed any potential savings.

    Perhaps what is really needed is a change to the Whitehall culture.

    1. cbars

      Re: Hmm...

      This is organisations everywhere, all over. There is a key question, which is always brushed under the rug:

      What does success look like?

      Trying to Project Manage a hydra will never end well; because it will never end. Projects must end, otherwise they aren't projects, they are business as usual. Then again, that's what keeps the big boys in play.

    2. Artaxerxes

      Re: Hmm...

      Once we can convince the politicians what computers are capable of and the requirements to do so we can see IT projects work or be allocated the right resources.

      Instead you have someone who doesn't use the software, tell the organisation it must have the software, then be built by people who aren't going to be there to nursemaid and test the project through to implementation and use by a range of people who aren't very skilled with computers.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Hmm...

      IME IT projects arent started directly on the whim of a politician, they are the result of collateral damage caused by a new or changed policy (itself perhaps started on a whim), which means that a new IT project is needed as the old one can't implement the requirements.

      Indeed IME govt bends over backwards to avoid IT projects, including updating seriously out of date and out of support IT, and fixing insecure IT.

      The only exception would be GDS, who have papered over a lot of ancient decrepit IT with shiny new stuff to make it appear modern, in the process diverting money away from fixing the decrepit stuff plus creating an instantaneous legacy as every project uses whatever today's favourite tool is and lumbering the next generation with a bunch of crap that will likely have to be discarded as no one will have any clue what this stuff was five years down the line.

    4. TheOtherHobbes

      Re: Hmm...

      >Perhaps what is really needed is a change to the Whitehall culture.

      Bingo. Have a Knighthood.

  6. Denarius Silver badge
    Unhappy

    meanwhile back in reality...

    private sector train !! bwhahha haha. What planet are you from ? In my little corner of the mess that is insourcing after decades of mostly expensive payments for not much the following rocks are hitting the hull of government IT boats.

    (a) many of the original gov IT staff just went to the outsourcerer and on to greener fields. Documentation and application knowledge gets lost when outsourcers change or the contract alters. This matters because

    (i) A lot of still working government IT used and is often based on inhouse designed and built software.

    (ii) loss of documentation means reverse engineering if possible with IT workers who are often not trained in older technologies or languages.

    (b) Of the remaining IT workers, many have retired.

    (c) Years of relentless cutting of public service muscle and bone (fat went decades ago) means even the client/user side now has less knowledge in using existing systems than their predecessors.

    (d) Middle managers are often not elevated techies anymore but drones with degrees in management, HR and other useless studies. This means they don't have a clue what the IT coal face are telling them, and worse still, a middle management class has appeared that prides itself on ignorance of technical fields. Honourable exceptions do remain so picture is not black, yet.

    (e) the rise of senior managment skills as spin doctors who seriously seems to believe that reality is affected by rephrasing statements.

    (f) a strange belief in sales weasels flogging very expensive COTS that required changing the organisation to fit it, rather than the ancient practice of making the software assist/enable/more effectively achieve whatever the organisation exists for.

    It is no pleasure gloating over predictions from 20 years ago being proved correct about mass outsourcing being a disaster. NOTE. I wrote _mass_ outsourcing. There is a place for thought out and evaluated outsourcing by technical staff and oddly enough, competent accountants. I have never seen it though, just anodynes and panaceas flogged by sales weasels to lazy senior bureaucrats aided no doubt, by blind obedience to some messianic economic cult by the politicians above them.

    1. M.Zaccone

      @denarius Re: meanwhile back in reality..

      Yep, you've nailed it. I'd go as far as to say that (IMHO) what you have said also applies to private sector outsourcing deals. The only difference is the government tends to air its dirty laundry. Often in the private sector the CIO just moves on to repeat the mess elsewhere before the full "benefits" of outsourcing are realised, and the real cost of outsourcing is hidden.

  7. Chris Miller

    "you can't outsource a mess"

    You can't do it successfully. Hasn't stopped a lot of people trying.

    My (free!) advice: if you can't properly manage your own staff, who (ought to) have some interest in the success (or, at least, non-failure) of your organisation; how do you expect to manage staff whose interests now lie in the success of a third party?

  8. smudge Silver badge
    Holmes

    Spot what's missing!

    The answer is not to bring it all back in house," he said. "Instead have the very best in four key areas of skill: project management, architecture and design, procurement, and finance."

    "And forget about defining the requirements, that's not important!".

    1. kmac499
      Holmes

      Re: Spot what's missing!

      The answer is not to bring it all back in house," he said. "Instead have the very best in four key areas of skill: project management, architecture and design, procurement, and finance."

      Well the obvious thing that's missing is Kevin.

      You know Kevin, the guy who sits in the corner with his headphones on all day, Only looks comfortably dressed on casual fridays. Spends all day tapping away on his keyboard while just occasionally leaning back in his chair, rasing his arms and quietly muttering "Yes it works"

      FootNote:- Kevin is a programmer,coder,developer he's the one who actually turns everyone elses work into something of use..

  9. Ken 16 Silver badge
    Paris Hilton

    Requirements

    Designers define requirements, Architects QA them, PM's change control them and Finance don't pay if they're not me.

  10. Medixstiff

    "there are certain benefits to using vendors, they can sack people that don't perform."

    Well someone needs to grow a pair of balls by the sounds of it, this government is a lifelong career BS needs to stop now, none of these lazy so and so's have anything to really fear, bring government in line with the real world and if they are anything like in Aus. fire the excess dead wood high level employees up top that are only there because no-one knows where else to put them.

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