A move away from ‘off-the-shelf’ digital services

Jos Creese, CEO of digital consultancy business CCL, looks at why digital public services means a move away from 'off-the-shelf' solutions

The digital service requirements of public sector organisations are increasingly difficult to define. This is one of the reasons why agile development is such an important methodology, and also why a move away from wholly predefined software solutions (‘off-the-shelff’ – OTS) is inevitable.

This is an interesting departure from past IT strategies: for as long as I can remember the mantra of IT departments and public service organisations developing their digital and IT strategies, has been ‘off-the-shelf only’ – no bespoke, no tailoring, and no customisation.

The point was, that in the past, IT departments had tailored and customised every IT solution to the nth degree, often in response to the needs of individual departments. ‘The business leads, not IT’ we were told as IT leaders, and IT performance was measured on the ability to design application for every and any requirement, without question. This created a complex and expensive legacy nightmare, as well as locking public services into inflexible and long term IT contracts where pre-defined SLA metrics were quickly a poor indicator of true performance.

Today’s public services need better applications and technology tools if they are to meet digital ambitions and potential. Most of the traditional OTS solutions from the traditional vendors are just not sufficiently innovative, adaptable, or functionally rich. They are also prone to the problems of lock-in and bundling. At the extreme are the traditional IT outsourcing models that have proved to be so problematic and ineffective, often holding back progress rather than powering it.

It does not mean that there is no place for large, OTS solutions, but it means that they will in future play a smaller part in the mix of cloud and bespoke solutions, where low-code and small modular apps are in the ascendancy.

This is pushing public service organisations to develop their own, or to work with suppliers who can provide bespoke solutions. This is as true in cyber protection as it is in application development. But it is also not a move back to the past where IT departments were developing unique solutions. More, it is about using modular IT components in a more flexible way.

A good analogy would be buying a new car. You can buy a standard car from a manufacturer, or, you can ‘bespoke’ your purchase in terms of most of what is ‘under the bonnet’ (gearbox, engine size and type), other components, colour and interior fittings. But it’s still a standard car from a manufacturer that does not compromise any warranty or safety standards and is readily serviced and maintained, with available spare parts. That is the sort of bespoke that we need to see in IT development in the public sector.

This however does put greater emphasis on the importance of relationships with IT suppliers, especially in pre-tendering engagement. A partnership approach is necessary, rather than depending solely on a detailed and fixed specification through a tender cycle.

This can help IT suppliers to understand better the changing nature of public services requirements, and for the public service organisation to be clear on the risks and technical opportunities proposed.

More critically perhaps, it also depends on the digital maturity of public sector organisations, especially in being able to understand and establish new risk models in a digital world where there is less predictability, and a greater need and willingness to experiment and innovate.

IT requires public bodies to have a clear digital vision, based on digital policies, standards and architecture.  This is the basis for engaging with suppliers and developing bespoke solutions that complement OTS yet do not create a ‘free for all’ and a fragmented digital landscape. Without this foundation, public services risk compromising the potential value of data, restricting shared services, and limiting wider interoperability.

Where public service organisations get this right, it opens up some new and exciting possibilities for tech SMEs in particular, since innovation and flexibility become key competitive advantages that are harder for the larger traditional incumbents to match.

This was clear at the recent G-Cloud 11 event, where the numerous discussions between public service organisations and SME providers of all shapes and sizes discussed the value of bespoke development. I chaired a number of these discussions and noted down some of the key quotations:

  • “However clever the technology, however open and flexible the interfaces, interoperability is essential, and that means open standards and open APIs from IT suppliers.”
  • “Sometimes IT departments are part of the problem, thinking they know best and have sole control over digital priorities and risks. Successful public service organisations have IT departments that work hand-in-glove with their digital colleagues and executive leaders.”
  • “We need IT suppliers to understand public sector challenges and requirements and not to oversell what they can in practice achieve.”
  • “As an IT supplier, it helps enormously when a public service organisation can offer some consistency in the internal team that we are working with, rather than an interim contractor in IT or procurement.”
  • “ Pre-tender discussions with IT suppliers are not only effective, they are often essential. Without this we often have little idea of what is available out there, or even how to tender for a service or technology. It helps us to understand risk, market conditions, and technology possibilities.”
  • “ Internal governance in some public service organisations is too complicated. We don’t know whether we should be dealing with procurement, legal, IT, digital leaders, line of business service managers, finance, HR, or even political leaders. The amount of variation, the lack of predictability, and the sheer complexity are real problems for SMEs.”
  • “ We need to define what bespoke actually means – there is a spectrum. It is clear that ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions will not meet every requirement, but the challenge is how to tender for more bespoke solutions and be clear on the costs and the risks. Whatever bespoke solution is contracted for, it has to be well- documented, well-designed, open and easily transferable to another supplier. Otherwise it creates future IT legacy issues and IT supplier lock-in.”
  • “As a procurement manager in a large public service organisation, I am too often being asked by my IT colleagues and service departments to extend out of date software contracts, either because of the risk and cost of change, or because no one has had the time to recognise the need to plan for a replacement. This is even when the service is poor, expensive and the product out of date!”
  • “In developing a partnership with an IT service provider offering a more bespoke and changeable service, perhaps for low code or no code, a ‘proof of concept’ can be valuable. It’s a good way of establishing likely costs and debugging risks. Short G-Cloud contracts offer an invaluable way of testing out a partnership with definable risk and cost.”
  • “’Customisation’ is not the same as ‘bespoke’ in my opinion. The former tends to play into service preferences, the latter tends to reflect true needs.”
  • “ As a CIO in a large public sector organisation, the ability for us to innovate whilst meeting regulations can be hard. Pre-procurement engagement can help with this but much of it is to do with internal cultures and attitude to risk.”
  • “As a public sector buyer, ‘off-the-shelf’ is often seen as less risky, but I think we are coming to the point on our digital journey where limits are being reached. Large OTS suppliers are often difficult to deal with and have expensive solutions that fall short of expectations.”
  • “As an IT supplier to the public sector, sometimes we find the vision is not clear. For example, what does ‘cost saving’ really mean? ‘Agile’ is great, but you still need to know where you’re trying to get to.”

Jos Creese has over 30 years of IT leadership across the public sector. He writes and consults extensively for both the public and private sector and chairs the Open University School of Computing Industrial Board.

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