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The Unacceptable

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The following is a post from Chris Chant, Executive Director in the Cabinet Office working as Programme Director for the G-Cloud initiative.

G-Cloud initiative

So, the response to the talk I gave at the Institute for Government was quite interesting. It prompted quite a few questions so I thought I should expand and clarify my views on the current state of things and how we can start to put it right.

Government, like all of us, wants IT that works. For too long, though, we thought we were special in government and that we needed special IT. We trained our suppliers to think the same and, in return, they proposed ever more complicated solutions to simple problems; our suppliers failed to convince us that we needed something else and continued to make the same mistakes in trying to deliver what they'd promised. After decades of stimulus / response and countless billions spent, it's time to make a change.

The change we are already making is a big one. It will affect the way government buys IT, who we buy it from, how we handle security, how we focus relentlessly on our customers and how all our employees work, not just those in IT. Every aspect of government and the public sector will be affected, thankfully, things will never be the same.

Cloud computing - the ability to buy proven solutions on a pay-as-you-go basis - is what lets government make this change. Once we recognise that we're not different and that we don't need special IT, then we can buy what everyone else is already buying and using. After all, at home you probably let Google handle your e-mail, you might be using iCloud for your contacts and calendar, you stream your music from Spotify and so on. There are business equivalents of those services that mean government, too, can move its e-mail, collaboration, customer management, payments and accounts - to name a few services - to the cloud.

Everything changes when we do this. We will pay less, get more and get it sooner. If a supplier fails to do what they've promised, we will find another supplier - with no tears. There won't be contracts running for decades; smaller businesses will be able to enter the market, engage directly with Government and compete with far larger companies; UK businesses will get a chance to out-deliver foreign ones; government will be more efficient and our customers will get the service they need.

This change isn't easy of course. A lot of things have to be different. And there will be many vested interests who try to stop the change both overtly and covertly. Over the last few months with the G-Cloud initiative, we have developed a small number of pilots that prove that this model can work. We have overcome some of the issues, and have confronted others that still need work. With the recent launch of the procurement, we are signalling that we think we're ready to do some more. We won't get it all right this time round and we will certainly encounter some more problems, and we will all work hard and fast to overcome those.

There will be many on the sidelines who criticise what we're trying to do and who will say that it can't be done. Some of their criticisms will hold true, at least at the beginning. And they'll use what goes wrong as a chance to reinforce their view that it can't ever be done. And our job is to prove them wrong.

The last 20 years of government IT say that we've been doing it wrong all along. The change we are going to make now is a chance to shift that approach massively, to make a 180 degree turn, and start to get it right.

Over the coming weeks I will set out how I see this working, looking at each of the issues in turn and also seeing how the change will affect different people from permanent secretary through to front line staff and from big systems integrators to niche suppliers. A new and exciting journey is about to begin.

Image by Kevin Krejci; used under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution.

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  1. Comment by The #unacceptable 1 year on... | G-CloudG-Cloud posted on

    [...] the way it delivers services as in Suffolk or Lambeth.  In summary much of the behaviour declared #unacceptable by Chris Chant is beginning to [...]

  2. Comment by #nhssm: IT in healthcare, how to champion its use for the greater good | attdigital posted on

    [...] government and it is highly applicable to the NHS too – Chris Chant’s post ‘The Unacceptable‘ is a breath of fresh air, and make sure you read his follow up, ‘SMEs – we need [...]

  3. Comment by What happened at the 2nd AgileTea camp? | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] was ‘Procure and Deliver’, timely given the recent focus on Chris Chant’s blog post, the Government’s Supplier event on 21 November on how Government wanted to make it easier [...]

  4. Comment by EMC chosen to support UK G-Cloud programme | Systems Evolution posted on

    [...] on the Government Digital Service website, Chris Chant, Programme Director for the G-Cloud project at the Cabinet Office, says: “The [...]

  5. Comment by GOV.UK- a truly open and collaborative platform | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] of you who heard Chris Chant’s infamous unacceptable speech will have heard the horror story of the £20,000 bill to change a single line of [...]

  6. Comment by 2nd Tea Cloud Camp – 16th Feb 2012 » teacamp posted on

    [...] framework and will offer her views on how Government is progressing with the challenge of the ‘Unacceptable’. Denise will also talk about using cloud services in government and getting to grips with the [...]

  7. Comment by Community Teacamps for November and December | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] SMEs or on the ICT G-Cloud, follow @SMECrownRep  on Twitter and check out Chris Chant’s blog posts on the Government Digital Service [...]

  8. Comment by G-Cloud and the end of the #unacceptable « Digital by Default posted on

    [...] has since written a couple of additional posts on the GDS blog outlining what his team is trying to achieve and encouraging more SMEs to become part of the [...]

  9. Comment by SaaS or Cloud SME? – get in touch says Cabinet Office official | Campaign4Change posted on

    [...] will be uncomfortable, uncharted territory for many but it must be done. It is unacceptable for things to remain the same. So if you are a SME and you have a SaaS or other cloud service [...]

  10. Comment by Sela (@selav) posted on

    i don't think that g-cloud is magic wand. i'm not sure why the small companies will have a chance to enter the market, perhaps at the beginning, but the past prove us that big suppliers swallow the small ones.

  11. Comment by SMEs – we need to talk | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] said in my last blog post that the government is changing the way we buy and use IT. We have trained our suppliers and [...]

  12. Comment by David Chassels posted on

    I run a SME software technology company that has created a new paradigm for business software. We have seen off patents from Microsoft, IBM and SAP not because of patents (difficult to get in EU) but because of our prior art of over 8 years! (even Bill Gates calls our capability the holy grail of software!).

    We have battled for 10 years to be recognised ever since OGC closed their R&D unit and transferred responsibility to suppliers to do the best for taxpayers. So Chris Chant being straight forward and blunt is quite refreshing.

    BUT is this the same Chris who when asked last month about being the intelligent buyer responded yes we need to be but we do not have the resource yet. Despite offering to show this new software he has failed to respond. So he remains the unintelligent buyer as he makes plans for the future? Sorry Chris it is easy to spout the words but action is louder and as a UK SME tech we get ignored? How many home grown Business Software Technology Platform companies have we got…..we are it!

    This software has been running at UK Sport and BOA for 10 years and despite numerous invites to Cabinet "Directors" no one has visited. At the beginning of the year a report was produced UK Sport comes out significantly more efficient than other funder yet nobody investigates. The intelligent buyer would be on to this and use as example of how to use "IT". This ignorance is not a supplier issue it is a Government one.

    On the same theme I am certainly not saying that the big SIs are not without fault but my experiences suggest Government has internal issue to address. For example the way projects are specified using “systems architects” working on the theory that we must use what we have results in specifications that are doomed from the start but SIs do what the customer wants so complex and expensive procurement takes place for huge contracts almost certainly destined for failure. One in particular resulted in a contract for £50m sent to India but thinking people and process like UK Sport (it is what government is about?) should have been less than £5m yet no one investigated when I raised via my local MP? The winners are not always the SIs who have to bear the consequences it is the dominant vendors who sell their complex disjointed software which is long overdue for a step change but there are strong “vested” interests – this where the real problems lie?

    I recently circulated a one pager on the intelligent buyer I await a reply? Clearly they are not yet there as the Cabinet’s “Open Source Options” fails to reflect the art of the now possible in application build. – yet another battle ahead of me……!

  13. Comment by Alan Lord (@opensourcerer) posted on

    Thanks for this.

    On the same day the Cabinet Office's Open Source Procurement Toolkit[1] is published your post is very well timed.

    Our experience of trying to promote Open Source into various parts of UK Gov. has been difficult and best and impossible at worst.

    We really do look forward to a time where public sector CIOs know that they will not be handsomely rewarded by buying the most expensive and complex solutions for what are, often, simple problems that can be solved quickly & cheaply.


  14. Comment by dmossesq posted on

    ... TD16 The Cabinet Office want to provide a web-based access mechanism over which the public can transact with government. They're planning a new one. But we already have one – the UK Government Gateway. What's happened to re-use in Cloud? Why aren't we re-using the Gateway? Why are we building a new one? Is that a wise investment of public money? If there are problems with the gateway, how will the Cloud avoid those problems?

    • Replies to dmossesq>

      Comment by ScottJordan posted on

      dmssesq The UK Government Gateway is only a small part of the existing structure,.

      Just because it exists does not mean it works or is good, I have used the Government Gateway and in my humble opinion it sucks, as a user experience it leaves a lot to be desired.

      Your extensive diatribe is typical of the old way, lots of talk, lots of project managers and lots of money.

      • Replies to ScottJordan>

        Comment by DMossEsq posted on

        Mr Jordan

        When I say I wish power to Mr Chant's elbow, I mean it.

        The Gateway is there and it works. The front end is harder to use than Facebook, I am told, but so what? The Constitution has not been amended yet to say that the job of Whitehall is the same as the job of a social network provider.

        Perhaps it is a good job that it takes some effort to use the Gateway. That may be part of its strength, part of the security it offers, at least while Atos Origin aren't busy losing USB sticks in car parks in Cannock.

        Perhaps the front end could be improved. Fine. Godd. No objection, obviously.

        But somewhere in the Gateway is all the intellectual property needed to allow natural and legal persons to interact with departments across much of government. It would be wanton to destroy that intellectual property and spend a fortune re-developing it just on the basis that the front end "sucks".

        There may be better reasons. Let's hear them.

        Then there is the matter of the awful contracts which I touched upon, the contracts which encapsulate the disgraceful irresponsibility of Whitehall with public money. We can all agree that there's a problem there which must be solved. Let's hear the solution.

        Power to your elbow, too.


      • Replies to ScottJordan>

        Comment by Steve Burgin posted on

        Solution... simple... real open transparent government and accountability..

  15. Comment by Vested interests will try to stop GovIT changing – Cabinet Office official | Campaign4Change posted on

    [...] writes on the Government Digital Service website that the “last 20 years of government IT say that [...]

  16. Comment by dmossesq posted on

    1. The last 20 years of government IT say that we’ve been doing it wrong all along

    2. Government, like all of us, wants IT that works

    3. ... there will be many vested interests who try to stop the change both overtly and covertly

    4. There will be many on the sidelines who criticise what we’re trying to do and who will say that it can’t be done

    From the sidelines, power to your elbow, Sir, in what you are trying to do (4). It will be hard (3) but it must be done. We're talking about public money here which deserves to be invested wisely (2) but which looks as though it has for a long time been squandered (1).

    Here are a few bits of test data. It will be interesting to see how your new system – let's call it "Cloud" for short – processes them, in its various releases, "over the coming weeks".

    TD1 Martha Lane Fox reports that there are something like 9.2 million people in the UK who have never used the web. She also says that public services should be digital by default. That's OK as long as there is some way for the 9.2 million aforesaid to access public services. Is there? Francis Maude, Cabinet Office Minister, said the other day that these potentially excluded people could get help in post offices and libraries. Not in any post office or library round here in my neck of the woods, they won't. There is something called "assisted digital". The first post on assisted digital appeared on the GDS blog on 28 July 2011. It is also, as a matter of fact, the last post on this subject. Has the corner been turned? Are public services being designed from the ground up to suit the end user? Or do we still suffer from a bunch of techies who love new kit and are determined to get their hands on it whether or not it suits the end user?

    TD2 Mr Maude was speaking at the Ensuring Trusted Services with the new Identity Assurance Programme conference with about 200 people in the audience. At the same conference, the Proposition Lead on IdA acknowledged that they still have to think through what happens if someone's ID is hijacked. A lot of suppliers have put a lot of effort into helping the Cabinet Office to specify IdA. The Cabinet Office have put a lot of effort in. Public money is now starting to be invested in IdA, £10 million from Mr Maude's cyber security budget and £40 million (or possibly £14 million, I may have misheard) from the Technology Strategy Board. Is Cloud really so diffuse that a project can be allowed to move into second gear before such a fundamental question has been answered? Shouldn't the "thinking through" happen first and the project be abandoned if the problem is intractable?

    TD3 At the same conference, the Proposition Lead on IdA also acknowledged that there are certain risks to transacting over the web. As well he might. The head of GCHQ had an article in the Times on the same day about the persistent threats to cyber security. There are these risks, according to the IdA man, but we'll just have to live with them. What is this new approach to security that you talk of? Does it include the traditional concept of security? Will CESG come in and review IdA in a few years time, after a few hundred million pounds have been spent, and put the kybosh on it because it fails all their security tests?

    TD4 According to the NAO, FiReControl will waste a minimum – a minimum – of £469 million of public money. What kind of public officials can sit by and watch a train crash like that? What was Dame Mavis McDonald DCB, permanent secretary at the time, doing while all the signals turned to stop and what was her successor Sir Peter Housden doing? Can Cloud help to stop another FiReControl?

    TD5 Thanks to the NAO and the PAC and the web, the names and numbers in TD4 are in the public domain. Nevertheless, there is a certain frisson in writing them and, perhaps, in publishing them here on the GDS blog. That is a problem with the present dispensation. At the moment, it feels like lèse majesté not just to criticise officials but even to name them. That's got to stop. We can't go on pretending that FiReControl was all John Prescott's fault. Everyone knows that's a charade. Does Cloud include openness? Openness with the public? This year, Whitehall aims to spend £710 billion of public money. And yet the public knows more about the private lives of scatty TV actors than we do about Whitehall. Openness might promote better performance. Certainly the present secret-by-default approach doesn't.

    TD6 Knowledge in the public domain, PA Consulting were paid £42 million for project management work on FiReControl. Project management? £42 million? A minimum of £469 million of public money wasted? It doesn't add up. To put it mildly. Does Cloud include cheaper and more effective project management?

    TD7 Transformational Government, the Cabinet Office project back in late 2005 to make Tony Blair's dreams of joined up government come true, never happened. Partly because the big departments of state simply ignored the Cabinet Office and refused to partake in the shared services on which Transformational Government was predicated. Now it's back. It's was called "G-Digital" for a while. Now it's called "digital by default". or possibly "GDS". What's to stop the same thing happening? The Cloud is built on shared resources. Suppose the Department of Health, say, or the Home Office just tell Ian Watmore to take a running jump, they're not sharing? What then?

    TD8 The Cloud is supposed to save money because the departments of state will only pay for what they use. That's not logical, is it? The resources have to be there for them to use when they want them. They must cost someone something. That someone will have to put prices up to cover periods of desuetude. Think back to timesharing bureaux. They became so expensive that as soon as minicomputers were invented, customers rushed out to buy them, and then microcomputers, to get away from the exorbitant costs of GEISCO and Comshare and the like. How does Cloud stop the same thing happening?

    TD9 Is it wise to share departmental data? Is it even legal? What does Cloud say about that? And if it transpires that the incontinent data sharing envisaged by Cloud is illegal, unwise and expensive, can we "exit" that bit, please? Exit data sharing, that is. Or are we locked into it?

    TD10 How would Cloud have stopped the Home Office wasting £292 million on the ID cards scheme? And is IdA just the ID cards scheme reborn?

    TD11 How would Cloud have stopped Connecting for Health from wasting £6 billion on NPfIT? And how will Cloud stop Sir David Nicholson from wasting the next £4 billion to which he feels CfH is entitled?

    TD12 How would Cloud handle something like the National Biometric Identity Service, the contract for which, between the Home Office and IBM, includes 36 schedules spread over 54 PDFs on the Home Office's archive website? Which of those 36 schedules can safely be dispensed with once we're in the Cloud?

    TD13 The UK Border Agency are currently being sued by Raytheon for £500 million for breach of contract. There is clearly some misunderstanding. UKBA dismissed Raytheon because they were in breach of contract. How will Cloud avoid misunderstandings like that? Are Fujitsu still threatening to sue the government for £700 million over NPfIT? And, given that CSC are manifestly in breach of contract having failed with Pennine Health care, how come they haven't been dismissed? How come they still have a £3 billion begging letter on Sir David Nicholson's desk? Officials seem to become beholden to their consultants and their contractors. Their behaviour is craven. Will Cloud restore some sort of order? Siemens produced a workable passport application system for £365 million 1999-2010 only four times over budget, and then the Identity & Passport Service signed a new contract, with CSC again, for £385 million to re-write it. That means we all pay £77.50 for a 10-year adult passport instead of £23. Since we buy 5.5 million passports a year, that means we're wasting £300 million a year. Why? How do these things happen? Can Cloud stop them?

    TD14 The biometrics proposed for the Home Office's ID cards don't work well enough to do the job. How would Cloud quickly determine this sort of dependency and stop the project? There is a case in point. DWP seem likely to use voiceprints for UC. Do voice biometrics work any better than facial geometry and flat print fingerprints? If not, how quickly will the Cloud nose that out and stop public money being wasted?

    TD15 Ever since the invention of the sub-routine 60 years ago, people have dreamt of libraries of reusable code routines from which could be assembled quickly and cheaply to build new systems quickly. They were called "utilities". They were called "components". or "classes" and now, maybe, they're called "apps". But it hasn't happened yet. Why will it happen now? That's what Cloud says, isn't it? That large, complex systems can be assembled from components in no time. Can you point at, say, half a dozen well-stocked libraries anywhere in the world with the components for IdA available, off the shelf? If not now, when? And why?

    That's my agile test bed, Mr Chant. Over to you.

  17. Comment by Scott K. Andrews (@ScottKAndrews) posted on

    I agree with everything you've written above, and find it extremely heartening 🙂

    My time working in Government digital comms was bedevilled by IT contracts with external providers which repeatedly prevented me from actually doing my job. However, I have a minor niggle with the sentence below:

    "government will be more efficient and our customers will get the service they need"

    My dad often tells of the day he realised that the world had changed. He was on a railway platform and the announcement apologised to 'customers' for a delay. Previously announcements had said 'passengers'.

    "I don't want to be a customer, I want to remain a passenger," he said to me later that day. "Passengers are for transporting, customers are for exploiting."

    I ran a little campaign amongst my colleagues while working for Government to get them to stop using the words customers. Government doesn't 'have customers', it 'represents citizens'. I never won the battle, though.

    Partly I think it's because 'citizens' may sound naff, but it's the best I could ever come up with. I think the word customer brings a host of subtextual and unconscious meanings that get in the way of properly understanding the nature of work in Government, of the audience we're addressing and the people we're providing a service to and for.

    I think the shift in mindset this small linguistic change would facilitate might be a good step forward on the journey you're beginning.

    Or, as my dad would say: "Customers are for exploiting, citizens are for representing."

    • Replies to Scott K. Andrews (@ScottKAndrews)>

      Comment by Stephen posted on

      I completely agree with your sentiments. At least some organisations have adopted the vague catch-all euphemism of "stakeholders" but too many public sector organisations have misunderstood that taking a business like approach means adopting a distance from the people they serve, be it "passengers", "citizens", or "users". It was a decade ago that I was involved at a senior level in a Russell Group University where I banished the word "customers" from meetings and reinstated the words "students" or "staff".

  18. Comment by Mark Steven posted on

    As a small supplier to government it's such a breath of fresh air to hear these views!

    Only a few months ago we were told that a solution was too cheap to contemplate by one government agency, and indeed, it was 10 times less than the estimate provided by the incumbent multinational that continues to enjoy a long term "partnership" with the agency.

    In this case, the CFO was isolated from the realities in IT, and simply couldn't believe what can now be achieved for relatively little investment. Thanks in part to the recession we're back in talks with agency, and I think these conversations can help change some hearts and minds within government agencies.

    Incidentally, I've been banging on about better models for procurement for a while, including entirely new developments with no capital outlay, financed on the basis of a minimum number of guaranteed subscriptions (over a reasonably short time frame). There's a blog post about this here:

    And a question...

    If we have ideas for apps for the government's app store, should we be sitting on our hands right now or talking to someone about them?