Public bodies are “leaving money on the table” by failing to deal with small and medium sized enterprises, Liam Maxwell says.
In the Cabinet Office building at 1 Horse Guards Road, he points out that SME contracts are not just typically cheaper, but that small companies can be easier and more flexible to deal with.
Known as a champion of SMEs and open source software, Maxwell encourages a disaggregated approach to IT contracts. In other words, he’s not a fan of organisations going out and buying “one big colossal box IT contract” that only very big, established companies are able to bid for.
By unpacking big IT contracts into their constituent parts, smaller, more niche companies can bid for bits of the work on offer. “In central government a key thing we are looking at is making sure we can get the best bidders bidding,” he says.
Towards open standards
Key to this approach is the creation of open standards, which aim to make sure there is interoperability between software systems, applications and data, without mandating what services organisations must buy.
Maxwell says open standards is a rather anodyne term, but they can be “tremendously powerful” as they will allow true interoperability and the sharing of information.
The outcome of a public consultation on the Cabinet Office’s open standard plans is currently with ministers for consideration. Due to be released next autumn, Maxwell says the standards will give “huge impetus to the [Cabinet Office’s] policy.”
“We try to make the standards as clear as possible from the centre to help trusts make their own decisions,” he explains. “We do have the power to mandate, but we don’t want to do that.”
Working against this transformation is an entrenched aversion to risk when it comes to signing large IT contracts that can be seen across the public sector, including the NHS, Maxwell contends.
He wants to build up the government’s capacity to support those in public organisations to try a different way of doing things. For example, he describes the move towards open source options as “very very powerful.”
“We recommend people try it out and get their own position on open source. Our policy is that people should have the choice to do that and remove the fear and uncertainty around it,” he says.
“We have no problem with people paying for good software or support costs for good software or open source.
“But we want the customer to have the ability to make an informed choice as an intelligent customer so we have a level playing field for open source and proprietary software.”
The government put on a series of road shows to advocate open source as an interesting and viable alternative for commissioners.
However, it has to be careful not to favour one type of company over another, but rather provide people with a “helicopter view” of a service and assist with pre-market engagement on behalf of the buyers of services.
Sharing best practice is another area where the NHS needs some encouragement. “The government can help people to identify that it’s better to share, we need to work at making sure that knowledge transfer is available and can be done effectively,” Maxwell explains.
“A lot of that is about transparency; the key thing is to collect the data and publish it, that’s how you encourage transparency."
The role of the centre
Maxwell says the Cabinet Office is focused on procuring IT that delivers better value for money. A key part of this is having a sensible review of projects and either convincing departments to go one way or encouraging a more disaggregated strategy.
As of May 2010, any government IT contract worth more than £5m has to go before the Cabinet Office before it goes out to tender through the Official Journal of the European Union.
“They have to get our permission to go out, so we recommend they come quite a long time before that - and when it goes to award or any extension it has to go to an exemption process through ministerial control,” he adds.
For example, the DH went to the Cabinet Office with a £150m systems integrator contract. Maxwell says this meeting “did not go well” and he was “particularly vocal” regarding his misgivings about the deal.
“The whole system integrator market is designed to benefit the system integrator, we have never been in control and we want to move off that and have control and be an intelligent customer,” he explains.
Three months later, the team came back with a plan for a service based on open source standards that cost £4.8m. “That’s the change they are now capable of doing,” Maxwell says.
The Cabinet Office has also introduced a mystery shopper scheme for companies that feel they have not been fairly treated in a procurement process.
“We are not going to answer the wishes of every SME every time, but we are across the board making it easier for SMEs to do business with the government and formally encouraging SMEs to tell us how to do it better.”
The clever people
The capacity of public sector workers to enact this kind of change is an ongoing issue. Maxwell says clever people need to be attracted to work in government by interesting projects.
He cites the new Government Digital Service - a comprehensive digital approach to public services - as an enticement forpeople from the better-paid commercial sector to come “knocking on the door.”
“In many ways health is one of those components of government that took a while to get everybody moving on, but looking across the whole of government – from submarines to hospital wards – in terms of IT, I see in health a real move towards the positive,” Maxwell says.
While staff within the NPfIT programme made a “tremendously costly set of mistakes”, the “guys now doing it are really sensible and really know what they are doing.”
He says he has seen fundamental change over the past year and former managing director for NHS Informatics Katie Davis brought in a lot of good people who can provide support.
“The results we see at the centre in terms of how much money people are spending and on what is really heartening,” Maxwell says.
Liam Maxwell will be speaking at EHI Live 2012 in a conference session on ‘open standards, open source, open markets’.Tweet #ehilive
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