Generally speaking, IT leaders in public sector don’t lose their jobs, because they don’t deliver day by day, but because the project didn’t work at the end, so there is a growing culture of doing nothing when it matters most. The public sector is almost now nervous to flip the switch and send transformation projects live.
And, who can question that attitude when in 2017 it was reported by The Infrastructure Projects Authority report that one-quarter of the UK Government’s major IT programmes [worth a total lifetime cost of £8bn] were at high risk of failure. The fear is understandable.
The common way around this conundrum is for public sector leaders to insure themselves by buying in big names to support projects. They can say we bought in a well-known brand and that provides an element of protection [although, it didn’t work with construction giant, Carillion]. But, generally, we all know the old adage, ‘nobody got fired for buying IBM.’ It still holds true in some quarters.
Personally, I’m not always convinced clients actually want those big suppliers to flip the switch either, such is the level of fear, but if it happens, at least they have a bigger name to do it, and manage any repercussions.
Anecdotally, I can tell you that once we were asked to support the procurement of an intelligence unit – it was either going to be one of two analysts’ firms – both with very difficult cultures and attitudes, both poles apart in terms of size. Even though the smaller firm had the better intelligence that we needed, we were encouraged to procure the larger firm because of its name. In the end, to get around it, we procured both.
Fear of flipping the switch and reliance on ‘insurance’ suppliers is not the answer. It’s not making transformation projects right. It’s just delaying the go-live.
Working with SME suppliers is often touted as the answer. I know there is a movement towards SMEs, but if you scratch the surface, it’s not really happening across the board.
According to research from Millstream Associates, in the last five years direct government spending on SMEs has only grown by just one percentage point from 10% to 11%. The firm estimates that, if spending on SMEs increases at its current rate, the SME community is likely to have missed out on £33.5 billion worth of government contracts in the ten years to 2022.
The fear that grips the public sector is really holding back transformation projects. We have three options; we can either carry on down the route of delaying the go-live of projects, bring in big name insurance suppliers, or start to really embrace the benefits that SMEs can bring. I’m in the last camp.
The reality is that flexibility, agility and a willingness of SMEs to collaborate with clients can make projects a success in a way that no large firm can handle.
The benefit of working with an SME is that sometimes we can do exactly as the client needs, we can go ‘off-piste’ to make the changes they need as they arise. SME’s can be agile. We’re not restricted by a rigidly enforced scope of work. We’re helping the client to get what they want rather than just ‘doing things to them’. This – of course – increases the likelihood of a project being right when it comes to flipping the switch.
Smaller suppliers are also far better at bringing the public sector with them on the transformation journey vs the bigger firms. Smaller firms make a better job of understanding the nuances of a unit or department; what it wants and feels. We often find huge resistance to transformation projects at ground level [see previous comments around fear of slipping the switch] but a smaller firm is better at changing this attitude because can work more closely with the clients’ team.
I also think SME’s are far better at listening to our clients. We can convert what we hear and give it back to them; we speak the same language as our clients and we try to take them on the journey with us. This is another good way of reducing the fear.
Written by: Max Finch, Managing Consultant