Interview: Mark Thompson and Jerry Fishenden
Interview: Mark Thompson and Jerry Fishenden
The authors of a new report on government IT argue that the time is right for a radical shift in the approach to public services
We're on the cusp of a new era for IT in public services, according to Mark Thompson and Jerry Fishenden. It won't be an easy transition, but it lays the ground for changes in service design and big savings from a different approach to procurement.
They're spreading the message as academics Thompson as a lecturer in information systems at the Cambridge Judge Business School and Fishenden as visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics but both are also active in the IT industry and have played parts in the political debate. Thompson was co-author of a report on open source technology commissioned by George Osborne when he was still shadow chancellor, and Fishenden supported parliament's public administration select committee in its recent investigation of government IT.
Now they have outlined their thinking in an academic paper, Why Government IT Should Never Be The Same Again, which they are pushing out for peer review, and are aiming to convey their argument to a wider audience in the hope it can influence behaviour, especially in procurement.
"One of the key things we're trying to do is explain it in historical terms," Thompson says. "Why is it that some of these huge outsourcing agreements are past their sell-by date? We want to understand why that is the case, rather than talking of big bad suppliers."
The basis of their argument is that we're moving from one approach to public services to another, and that a big change in technology is the prime factor in making it possible. Since the 1980s the dominant force has been new public management, which favours market approaches to public services such as widespread outsourcing. Now we can move to post-bureaucratic government, a more modular approach that splits the standardised processes fit for outsourcing from the more specialised ones that should be kept in-house.
"The idea of post-bureaucratic government really differs from what went previously, and it's all about the technology," Thompson says. "You can now chop up into little building blocks the stuff that should be outsourced, the commodity, and the stuff you should keep in-house. We argue that the reason a lot of the outsourcing train smashes kept happening was because departments were outsourcing entire vertical functions.
"What government should be doing is standardising on business logic and open standards, and being very agnostic about the technology, suppliers and best delivery vehicle. But what we've seen is the opposite; they've been standardising on technology, suppliers and the delivery vehicle. That's meant they've wound up with a dog's dinner of business logic and standards."
A central point of the argument revolves around two major developments in technology: the emergence of 'n' tier architectures and open standards, and the provision of cheaper, 'utility' services.
N-tier involves breaking up an application into tiers so that developers only have to modify or add a specific layer rather than rewrite everything. Fishenden says it provides a lot more flexibility.
"You could work on an authentication or identity tier separately to the others, rather than getting this monolithic thing that claims to do everything for you and which you can't disaggregate," he says. "You can pull together the most efficient components in a way that they extend to the particular public service, rather than suppliers trying to foist a front to back end model on the solution that has more to do with supply side than meeting the customer needs."
He also talks of a confluence of technology developments supporting the change, not just open standards but people's use of different devices, the ability to share ideas on the web and the increasing role of cloud computing. In the past organisations had to size their technology capacity to meet peak requirements, but now they have more options to use IT services as they are needed.
"Some of these technologies are pretty raw and innovative so we need to keep them in-house, while others are now quite mature and available off the shelf, such as email and web hosting facilities, and you can find service providers to tick off those bits in competitive markets," he says.
"You can now ask fundamental questions about the ways you can redesign public services."
Their paper argues that these developments are making it possible to separate traditional technologies and services into a mix of those that can be standardised and marketed as commodities, and those that are more niche. Thompson describes it as a separation of "business logic from application logic", and says this creates a platform on which a market can develop, and that government can do its bit to support the trend.
"People talk about cloud technology, but it is a commercial model; if I'm happy to standardise I can get something that's much less expensive.
"If government wants to stimulate the marketplace it has to put out those commercial messages that say 'We are standardising on these open technology standards and this open business logic', and that message would become a platform. People would invest in it because there's a market there, and government gets to introduce some choice.
"Once you start to pursue that the whole business of post-bureaucratic government begins to make sense."
This is going to be one of the big challenges facing chief information officers and others leading IT procurement.
"If you are a CIO of a government organisation and are coming out of a seven year outsourcing deal there is one big implication for your whole career before you tie yourself up for another seven years you need to take a good long look at this model," Thompson says. "If you don't take advantage of it you can wind up looking like a turkey; people will ask why you didn't take advantage of these technologies to disaggregate and get a real handle on what your cost of service is and where you should be going with it.
"The other thing is that this market is maturing rapidly. At the moment there are only a few services, email being one of the key ones, for which you can jump off into the cloud and do it, but over the next few years we are going to see more and more business applications coming on stream. People are building these things against the knowledge that there is an emerging marketplace.
It's a strong message, although it prompts the thought that it may be difficult to apply across the board. The relevant services are maturing at different rates and old contracts are expiring at different times.
Thompson acknowledges this, and says the time for the transition may not be right for every organisation. In other words, post-bureaucratic government is there for the taking, but not necessarily in the short term.
"It's very much there to be realised and there's a lot of work and challenges to get there."