The £650m programme to join up the criminal justice system will not be handed to one IT supplier, but shared out to ensure competition, according to the Criminal Justice IT (CJIT) unit.
CJIT, which is in charge of the vast modernisation programme, has decided to involve a series of suppliers, rather than sign one mega-deal for the project.
This is at odds with the strategies of other government agencies such as the Inland Revenue, which is looking to sign a huge deal with one supplier.
CJIT is looking for around three companies to work on implementing new systems, two integrators to develop and maintain its key Criminal Justice Service (CJS) Exchange hub, and one hosting company for the exchange.
John Wailing, head of technology design at CJIT, insisted that using a series of suppliers will keep them on their toes. "They are always on the edge because of the peer pressure," he said. "If one slips the others will know it."
Much of the modernisation is based around the CJS Exchange, which will allow the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts to share documents electronically.
The exchange will link to documents, and provide an audit trail and security, but will not actually hold the data.
A secure portal will offer access for solicitors and prisons, while another portal will enable the public to track cases.
CJIT is building a prototype, which is due to be ready by early 2003. Wailing claimed that this will give CJIT an idea of the problems suppliers will face.
"Rather than demand the earth and get something that doesn't work, we will see what can be achieved and find out the problems," he said.
"We take the view that the time is ripe because of internet technologies which join up disparate systems.
"This is a large project and we won't get another chance. We either get it right this time or pack up and go home."
CJIT also wants to be technology independent, according to Wailing. "At the moment we're building around .Net technology from Microsoft, but we are looking for a managed service that could be built on Java or another technology," he explained.
"We don't want to be tied to any one technology: everything must interoperate."
However, David Finley, head of private finance initiative development at the National Audit Office, warned that it is still unclear whether single or multiple suppliers worked better.
"We are interested in seeing how these arrangements work out because there are pros and cons to both approaches," he said.
Finley suggested that signing a single deal allows customers to build a strong relationship with their supplier, but that there can be problems.
"The difficulty is that the supplier is in a strong position and it's more and more difficult for the department to test whether they are getting value for money," he explained.
Organisations that divide large projects between suppliers will benefit from more competition, but will also suffer weaker ongoing relationships, he concluded.
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