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Coalition Programme for Government: IT implications

The UK's new government is shaking-up public sector IT in the UK: what are the implications for IT practice?

No one expected public sector IT to go untouched by UK's new coalition administration, and the proposals in its ‘Programme for Government' - published at the end of May - outline at least 14 points with resonance to the way it  wants public sector information and communi­cations technology to be managed in the UK.

"It's no surprise that the coalition government's Programme for Government puts IT in the firing line, as recent history shows that investment in public sector IT does not always bring the immediate rewards most people expect," says National Computing Centre spokesman Michael Dean. "That's not to say it is those who are involved in the delivery of IT solutions are culpable." Dean believes that IT is in "a new world of uncertainty where quick fixes [in the form of budget cuts] are going to be the order of the day."

The proposals are, of course, not all about project cuts - indeed, they contain proposals for extending the reach of ICT that will go some way to absorbing the disruption caused by cancelled public sector initiatives. Even the government's intention to publish details of new and retained ICT contracts creates opportunities of its own.

Several high-value contracts are certainly going to be annulled, scaled back, or parked indefinitely. The scrapping of National Identity Scheme cards is the most headlined casualty. French systems engineering firm Thales is the biggest loser here, having in 2008 secured a contact worth £18m to design, build, and roll out the National Identity Register that would have supported the cards' deployment. Other contracted programmes marked for cancellation include the National Biometric Indentiy Scheme (IBM), the Passport application and enrolment system (CSC), and the Contactpoint child information database (Capgemini).

Scaling back may also leave some big IT project teams with newly-appeared ‘windows' in their calendars through to at least the end of 2012; added to this is the fact that some ‘business as usual' expenditure will also be curtailed. Scheduled hardware upgrades for instance, will be capped, along with software and support agreements. Public sector departments may have to forego three-to-five year replacement cycles for desktop and laptop PCs. IT strategists cavil at such economies because failure rates rise as kit ages, thus heightening data assurance risk.

Over time a combination of changed operating circumstances could result in a return to more ‘traditional' roles for in-house IT departmnets, reverting to a more proactive role in maintaining existing assets and infrastructure on a day-to-day basis.

Hovering over this scenario is cloud computing, and the question of the sort of role it will take. Will it be designated a tool of IT cost control - or a victim of it? Cloud's critics claim that the cost implications are still largely untested and unverified; the cloud might appear to offer TCO advantages compared with traditional models of enterprise computing, but it brings other outlays that organisations do not always factor into their expenditure plans: network infrastructures may have to be beefed-up to deal with the extra bandwidth required when workforce swathes start accessing core applications through their Internet-connected browsers.

Although it could be misleading to characterise cloud as ‘CAPEX-free computing', the NCC's Michael Dean still foresees contention, as cloud providers see the new budgetary landscape as an opportunity to win over cash-strapped IT directors. "Cloud computing is certainly going to go head-to-head with in-house IT solutions [for the rest of] this year," he predicts. "Either way, 2010 will be good for restructuring consultants and [providers of] shared services."

Information security budgets may be ringfenced in public sector agencies, but government plays a wider societal role in protecting the nation against cybercrime. While the Coalition is proposing cuts, cybercriminals have plentiful financial resources to work with. "There is a brief mention of a refocusing of Serious Organised Crime Agency, but otherwise, a marked absence of focus on online security," says David Roberts, executive director of The Corporate IT Forum. "The planned opening up of access to government, data, and information via the Internet must be balanced with mitigation of risk, and an understanding of - and strategy for - dealing with levels of e-crime."

The closure of quangos like BECTA is also bound to have an impact on the future of IT trends. It will in theory enable educational bodies to make freer decisions in respect of the computers and software that they standardise on, and with respect to the latter the expectation is that schools and colleges will explore the possibilities promised by open source options; indeed, the future looks bright for Linux, as coalition plans make specific mention of creating "a level playing field for Open Source software [that] will enable large ICT projects to be split into smaller components".

Decentralisations in IT procurement may create opportunities from small, agile IT consultancies with which wholly self-deterministic ‘academies' will prefer to partner with for installation and support.

Then there is IR35. Although many self-employed IT contractors had hoped this legislation would be abolished by a Conservative majority, the coalition commits only to a review IR35 that seeks to replace it with "simpler measures that prevent tax avoidance, but do not place undue administrative burdens or uncertainty on the self-employed, or restrict labour market flexibility".

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