The men from the ministry aren't normally the people you would associate with revolution, yet few industries are experiencing more of an upheaval in the way they procure, develop and use their information systems than central government.
It's not just that old structures and ways of working are being blown away by privatisation and enforced competition between suppliers and civil service units for public contracts. There's also a strong sense that new technologies are going to change the very way that government relates to the people who pay its bills - the taxpayers.
Government spending on IT is difficult to measure, but it's thought to have totalled some #2.3 billion during the 1995/96 financial year, according to figures from the public sector IT research organisation, Kable. The researcher reckons that some #609 million went on hardware, #407 million went into commercial software, #698 million on buying in services, and #597 million on staff, supplies and telecomms. The MoD (see Chots box) alone spent #748 million during the year, Kable estimates, while the DSS managed to gobble up #371 million and the Inland Revenue ate up #247 million.
From the late 1980s onwards, departments made enormous strides in replacing islands of automation with integrated IT systems which cut training, running and procurement costs, and increased office productivity. Most departments created their own IT architectures, known as infrastructures, many of which were sophisticated and involved multi-million pound roll-outs.
The DTI, for example, is still rolling out Osprey, its #20 million infrastructure project. Peter McAloon, programme director for the Osprey project, says: "We wanted to get a high degree of commonality across workgroups in the department. If everyone had the same look and feel and the same basic tool set on their desktop, we could simplify our training and people would be able to take their skills from one job to another within the department. We wanted Osprey to be a 'friendly face' to someone when they arrived in a new office - if you didn't recognise anyone in the office, at least you'd recognise the Osprey terminal."
Osprey was specified in-house but implemented in partnership with ICL.
Partnerships with the public sector are nothing new to government IT, but they're becoming more important every day. Put bluntly, if you fancy a job in the civil service as an IT professional, forget it - the future of public-sector IT lies in private hands. Slowly but surely, the government is privatising Whitehall's IT functions.
The most recent and important development along this road is the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), under which every project involving capital spending - basically meaning every IT project - must go to the private sector unless the in-house team can demonstrate that it can do the job better and cheaper.
PFI goes beyond simple privatisation, though. It gives suppliers greater freedom of manoeuvre when designing systems, but it also forces them to build and run IT systems using their own money. Suppliers can't bill departments for building costs - they can only recoup their costs through charges levied on use of the systems. If things go wrong, that's tough - the suppler loses its investment and the government hires someone else.
Graham Jordan, head of the Cabinet Office's Central IT Unit (Citu), which is in charge of Whitehall's IT strategy, says: "The government does not really need to own computers. What we need are the things computers do for us. Given that, it is logical to contract for a service rather than for the boxes to provide that service. The result should be that we will get a better service and better value for money."
PFI will have three important effects. First, it should create more imaginative and better-designed applications, since suppliers will no longer be hampered by civil service restrictions.
A classic example of the rigidity PFI is designed to overcome is Chots, the MoD's #250 million secure office-automation project.
By the time Chots officially began rolling out in 1991, the system had been under design for seven years. It was already in its third design generation, and was determinedly terminal-based in an age when the entire world had already committed to client-server. "Some of the early versions of Chots were not particularly well received because they were character-based and people were already used to using Windows and standard office software," said one source close to the project who asked not to be named.
Topix, the ICL-led consortium which won the contract, was saddled with a contract which set out a road map requiring detailed negotiations to introduce even simple architectural changes. For example, the 1991 contract committed Topix to add a GUI to the character-based system only in 1995, leaving many users angry and frustrated at what they saw as a preposterously outdated system. ICL had to renegotiated the contract earlier this year in order to be allowed to add an option to install Windows NT workstation clients.
If the Chots contract were let today under PFI, it would undoubtedly be far more flexible. Yet many of the project's problems are rooted in technological issues. Moreover, PFI may cut across one arguably positive side-effect of rigid procurement - the growth of open systems standards.
"Open systems would not have taken off so quickly if UK departments had not been mandating them," says Carol Wyatt, director of business solutions at Bull UK. "PFI will certainly move emphasis from official to de facto standards. There's an extreme view that open systems - whether de facto or official - will be less important now under PFI, but I think the industry will still need standards to ensure we develop interoperable systems."
PFI is also expected to cut public-sector IT down to a rump of units - known in Whitehall jargon as "intelligent customers" - which monitor suppliers but which have no operational responsibilities. "Ministers have said they want to reduce the size of the civil service, but this does not mean that there is a political agenda which aims to get rid of internal IT departments," claims Jordan.
"We are not saying that PFI is a one-way door out of the public sector.
Departments need to keep a good core team to act as the intelligent customer.
It is up to individual departments to decide which tasks they want to keep in-house. We are not in the business of destroying in-house resources, but departments need to concentrate more on their core skills."
A third major effect of PFI will be to hand responsibility for most everyday IT strategy to a handful of powerful private suppliers. "The relationship between the state and suppliers is definitely getting greyer," admits John Wolfe, government marketing manager of the largest player in the government market, ICL.
So where will independent software and networking houses stand? PFI contracts are so huge and expensive that only the biggest firms can lead or even join consortia bidding for them. A typical consortium bidding for a large PFI contract, for example, will need a merchant bank as a member and it will cost some #2 million to assemble and run by the time a winner is chosen. Hardware sales into government are now sewn up by a handful of hardware catalogues, such as the GCAT agreement signed earlier this year with ICL and EDS, or by PFI contractors.
Is there room for smaller outfits developing innovative solutions? Wyatt argues there is. "PFI should actually open doors to people with innovative solutions, since the consortia will have an eye open for innovative products which could improve their return over the life of a contract," she says.
"Before PFI, IT investment was usually seen simply as a cost, now it can bee seen more as something to increase value."
There is no doubt that there is a tremendous pent-up demand for good IT systems in government. For years, systems have been designed on "stovepipe" principles, under which applications focus on a particular mechanism, such as the paying of unemployment benefit. Departments tend look at their IT operations from the perspective of the task, rather than from the perspective of the citizen.
"Historically, departments have developed their systems in isolation from each other. Different applications and departments find it hard or even impossible to share information with each other," says Jonathan Hughes, UK public sector sales manager for Microsoft. "As government become more customer-focused, it's going to have to change the way it designs its IT systems." It is no coincidence, Hughes argues, that ministers are only now preparing to introduce a single Whitehall-wide Email system - one which can communicate with the outside world.
The Internet, on which this promised government-wide Email system will partly be based, is set to play an important role in creating more responsive, citizen-centric one-stop shopping systems, along with interactive multimedia technologies such as kiosks, which are already being trialled by local authorities and police forces. The government is about to ape the customer-service revolution which is already happening in the financial services sector.
"Whichever party wins the next election, the government will definitely be setting up green-field organisations delivering entirely new types of services such as one-stop services and call centres modelled on the financial services industry," says Oscar Rook, UK government business manager for Oracle. "Joe Public wants one number to ring for all services, and government as it's organised right now can't deliver that."
Even departments which don't deal with millions of customers, such as the DTI, are excited by the promises of new technologies. McAloon says: "Desktop technology has helped to open up the DTI for the people who work in it, and it has helped them respond more quickly and flexibly when dealing with the public. The facilities of Osprey, such as Email, forums, and the ability to share information quickly and effectively, has brought the department closer together.
"We will be looking to integrate the Internet into Osprey, since the ability to use intranet technology is something that we are very interested in. We'd also like to use the Internet to distribute more information to the public," McAloon says. "We would like to be able to send information to foreign countries, for example to our embassies abroad, although the difficulty at the moment is that there are some countries which severely restrict the use of encrypted communications within their borders."
Many observers have their doubts about PFI, pointing out that it has significantly raised procurement costs and may not provide the long-promised flexibility suppliers crave. Not only that, but the centrifugal forces unleashed by breaking departments down into autonomous agencies - and by handing greater power over IT strategy to suppliers under PFI - may well destroy much of the good work achieved by the major departmental infrastructure projects during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Much will rest on the work of Jordan's unit, Citu, which was created last year to give Whitehall an IT strategy body with high-powered ministerial access - something it has needed for a long time.
Citu is drafting a Green Paper on Whitehall IT, which is expected to be published within the next few weeks. It will be eagerly awaited.
Will it all work out in the end? William Heath, chairman of researcher Kable and a seasoned observer of Whitehall, says: "Whether PFI will make government into a more sophisticated and effective user of IT is too close to call. Central Government is not a single, homogenous organisation, it's a bunch of ministerial baronies which are themselves breaking into agencies with task-focused chief executives who have little need for Whitehall-wide IT strategies.
"And we should never underestimate the inherent tension in the civil service between the desire to encourage creative solutions and the need for control and accountability," says Heath. "In some ways, the story of government computing is the story of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object."
Chots: MOD goes IT in a big way
Chots (Corporate Headquarters Office Technology System) is the MoD's super-secure #250 million office automation project. It's currently rolled out to 9,000 users at 21 sites in the UK, Germany and Cyprus. Chots kicked off in 1991, after a seven-year procurement, and was designed before the days of client-server as a timesharing system based on secure Unix servers linked to secure Unix workstations running character-based applications.
Networking is by private fibre-optic cabling networks using encryption at both ends. In 1995, an X-Windows GUI was introduced, allowing Windows 3.x applications to be emulated under Unix. The move went some way towards pacifying users who felt that Chots was architecturally dated. The next release, CSV7, will allow MoD officials to use Windows NT 4.0 workstation clients running native Microsoft Office applications for lower-security work, although higher-security documents can still only be accessed from Unix terminals.
"Windows NT will not replace Unix on the majority of terminals, because there are inherent technical restrictions on the use of Windows NT within secure military environments," says one source close to the project. "Chots may appear dated and inflexible by using Unix at the client end, but the truth is that using secure Unix is the only option if you want to mix multiple levels of security within the same domain."
Chots is to also be the core for an MoD-wide secure Email network. By late 1997, some 45,000 MoD users will be connected directly to each other for the first time, using Chots as a secure Email hub.
Osprey: flies the IT flag for the DTI
The #20 million Osprey project, which began in 1993 and is now almost fully rolled out, is a classic infrastructure project providing a tightly-controlled IT environment for over 5,000 civil servants in the DTI. Osprey rigorously controls all hardware and software users are allowed to access.
Desktop, networking and server operating systems are customised to prevent users from accessing potentially dangerous facilities, such as DOS or Unix prompts. All information held on client machines is transferred to secure Unix servers when users log off, so that no confidential data will be lost if the PC is stolen.
Windows 3.x is the GUI, networking is based on Lan Manager, and office automation and groupware are supplied by ICL's TeamOffice product. Users are divided into 60-odd workgroups issued with a basic toolset of software, including a word processor (Word), an electronic diary, a bulletin board/forum service, document management software, and fax software.
For power users, a second toolset is available including a spreadsheet (Excel) and a database (Access). There's also a catalogue of mandatory best-of-breed software to be used, such as accounting packages and personnel software, which is designed to prevent different DTI units re-inventing the wheel.
No user is allowed to access Osprey until their workgroup is certified as Osprey-compliant.
Peter McAloon, Osprey programme director at the DTI, says: 'We predicted that we could expect costs savings of about 7%. The figure we were asked to save - and the figure we agreed with the Treasury - was 4%. We know that we have achieved at least that figure because the savings planned from Osprey were taken off our running costs budget. In other words, they were built into the budget we have to work from.'
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