Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Procurement policy, hubris and the cloak of invisibility.

I suspect this week is not the best time to discuss the Christmas Party at CCS given the press attention to IT procurement. Saturday had an excellent feature in Times2 on why government IT projects go wrong, then today's Times had four separate pieces on the Aspire Debacle, for example: here.

To me the big issue isn't yet another IT procurement debacle, it's the issues of procurement policy, hubris and invisibility . 

The political leader of UK government procurement, also famous for his Jerrycan approach to 'bottleneck purchases', is Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister. Earlier this year he decreed that IT procurement policy was that there would be no contracts over £100m - small was considered beautiful regardless of the risks!

Now in spite of a long history of not implementing procurement policy, it seems this 'small is good policy' is going to break the mold and actually be implemented by splitting the major HMRC Aspire project into smaller contracts. I need not join the chorus of those who argue this is high risk, but included in that chorus are some notable voices from the CBI, Public Accounts Committee and Public Administration Select Committee.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson is reported to have said though "HMRC intends to break this contract into packages which is entirely in line with our new approach and will ensure competition from the widest possible  range of suppliers". There is no admission that this may be a demonstration of procurement hubris or even stupid sourcing, just that it is in line with policy. Nor was there any confirmation that discussions with the market have provided confirmation that SMEs will indeed be willing and able to bid! 

Nevertheless, since it's in line with policy, it must be okay? What we have not heard is the voice of the Government's CPO providing an endorsement for the procurement approach. Does he agree with it in this particular case? Does he disagree with it but can't publicly say that? Does he believe that in spite of the accepted positioning of such an IT procurement as 'strategic' within a Krajic model, he has a better recommended strategy which the rest of the 'procurement pack' have yet to see? Then again, what about the Major Projects Authority - haven't they a role in disaster avoidance or do disaggregated contracts of less than £100m avoid their radar?

There's another interesting quote from an HMRC spokesman: "We will renew our IT contract within Cabinet Office guidelines and on time."  Is that a buck passing statement to the effect that if it all goes wrong the HMRC only followed Cabinet Office guidelines? The pedants among you will of course have noticed that the only commitment is to delivery of the 'IT contract ... on time' which does not necessarily mean the actual functional delivery of the service being procured. Isn't it wonderful that the project is called Aspire! 

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