Rotten Windows and Government Cuts

May 24, 2010

The windows at our home are newly woodstained (Microsoft’s libel lawyers drawn in by my title can stop reading now). The expenditure was considerable as the job was outsourced to the redoubtable Mr Lewis, but the idea is that we avoid a greater cost – we spent hundreds of pounds on replacing just one window that had rotted. Sometimes expenditure can be painful, but it is necessary to save in the long to medium term.

I mention my windows because, when we seek to understand the problem with the deficit, we are generally asked to relate it to household expenditure. This is tricky in a household like ours where we narrowly avoided putting sprinkles on children’s trifles on Sunday because the use-by date on the box was April 2001 – we felt that was marginal and binned it (2006 would have been OK). If the Eastham attitude to household expenditure was applied to government policy, many policies that are well past their sell-by dates would be curried and served up on Tuesdays (come to think of it, many government policies do seem like spiced-up leftovers from a 1997 manifesto). But I have been trying my level best to apply the sane householder’s view of the first set of budget cuts. And the bit that I cannot quite grasp is cuts in IT expenditure and the general attitude to them.

Obviously there may be IT projects that are luxurious and nobody would suggest that we should indulge in those, but I suspect they are very few and far between. Of the 6.2bn in cuts, £95m is to be achieved through savings in IT spending. That is roughly 1.5% of the whole so it doesn’t seem that bad, but I suspect that the ‘IT spending’ figure from the Treasury will be just direct IT spend and that many of the other projects that are affected will have an IT element. My chief problem is not with individual cuts of IT spend (I have insufficient detail to have a view), and certainly not with the idea that it might be perfectly possible to run government IT projects more efficiently. But we do seem to have allowed the term ‘IT project’ to become synonymous with ‘self-indulgent, power crazed frippery’ – and that does worry me.

IT projects {i}should{/i} be about reducing cost and improving service. Cutting IT projects should thus be pretty low on government priorities and the IT industry has a responsibility to make it clear that well run IT projects are important for the national good. I accept of course that, as many large-scale projects show, there is often a gap between what should be and what is – in fact, many will feel I am not far from ‘if wishes were horses, beggar-men would ride’. But I do genuinely believe that good government IT projects can be empowering and bring in services at a lower cost. I don’t want to see us cut back on such projects now, and find ourselves replacing rotten Windows at a much greater cost later.

Of course, my view may not be entirely untainted – cuts in government IT projects can turn out to be bad for IT lawyers. Fewer projects, less work. But cuts could have a positive side – the drive for efficiencies may lead to more outsourcing and the likelihood of a switch to greater use of open source could create a brief lawyer bonanza. If not, you will all have more time to write articles – every cloud.

I would be very interested to hear any tales that SCL members have of the effects of cuts, or even the threat of cuts, on contractual behaviour. Are government bodies rushing to the finishing line to commit to projects for fear that they may otherwise be cut? Or are parties with government funding dawdling while policies are refined?

My curiosity about one of the cuts announced on Monday has led me to speculate about the future of agencies that do certainly influence the practice of many IT lawyers. One quango that was cut on Monday was Becta. To my shame, I knew nothing about it – in its own words, it is ‘the government agency leading the national drive to ensure the effective and innovative use of technology throughout learning’. One of its declared principal activities is to help the front line make informed choices about technology and plan, buy and use it effectively. Clearly the new thinking is that the schools and colleges should be trusted to make their own choices and my instincts are to sympathise with that view. But if that is the thinking for one element in local government, might it not apply more widely? Might the Office of Government Commerce and PartnershipsUK be seen as ‘cuttable’? What effect would that have on public procurement practice generally and the ICT area in particular? I am sure that the OGC and PartnershipsUK feel very strongly that they save far more than they cost, but then so does Becta. Would anyone actually want to go back to the days before the OGC Model ICT Contract, negotiating every term with local authority representatives lacking the expertise to argue coherently, but so lacking in money that they argue anyway? Didn’t think so, but it surely could happen.