I’m not sure why but the arrival of the Government’s Cloudstore, a new portal for public sector bodies to procure software, got me thinking about the “Comparethemeerkats” campaign. Bear with me…
Even if you are suffering ‘meerkat fatigue’ I don’t think many would argue this campaign has made a dull subject (price comparison websites) somewhat entertaining.
And without wishing to offend those who spend their lives processing public sector tenders I wonder whether there is something to be learnt from this approach. Many people would agree that the mere mention of ‘Government Procurement’ would be a powerful sedative. I’m not sure what the Cloudstore equivalent of meerkats would be, but surely greater emphasis should be placed on properly promoting the service so that both buyers and the SMEs who are meant to benefit from access to Government procurement maximise the opportunity?
While the tone is generally positive there are outstanding questions. Mark Say’s article in the Guardian worryingly saw an admission from Phil Pavitt, CIO at HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC): “How big departments are going to use it (Cloudstore) has not been fully thought through…"
At the very least the Cloudstore signals an intention from Government to act upon long harboured aspirations to move away from expensive, long-term IT contracts and enable more UK small businesses to overcome the bureaucratic nightmare that is Government procurement.
As Stuart Lauchlan suggested this could be a quiet revolution. Yes many of the well-known vendors have made it onto the list, but the message is fairly clear. Be prepared to deliver short-term contracts and strip away the complex implementation costs or we have alternatives. It could be argued that the mere suggestion of alternative is enough to focus minds and deliver greater efficiencies for the public sector (and us taxpayers).
Perhaps when we look back on it we’ll see this decision as one of those moments when Government intervention sparked a truly revolutionary moment.
However, the Government’s approach does leave a few questions unanswered. Stuart pointed to learnings from the US’ project on Cloud Computing, which shows there is a lot more to consider than simply listing an application or service on a portal. Likewise Clive Longbottom welcomes Cloudstore, but recognises that the public sector has to embrace it if it is to be successful.
From my perspective the key questions are:
Buyer/end user education and empowerment:
Using a service from Cloudstore will never be quite as simple as Amazon or the Apple iStore, but it will be consigned to history as another Government-backed dodo without significant investment in buyer education. If we look at SaaS adoption it has often seen end users circumventing frustrating IT policies to use the software they want. While I’m sure central and local Government departments will have checks in place to prevent a ‘free-for-all’ Cloud Computing should empower users and buyers to make choices. But how do they choose between the solutions on offer? What considerations should affect their decision?
Of the 250 vendors already registered on the Cloudstore 50% are supposed to be small businesses often providing just a point solution or at best a suite of similar products. In the main they will be built on one platform, such as Solidsoft on the Microsoft Azure platform. They do not have the resources to integrate their offerings with those of all the major vendors. That is a problem, because central and local Government have invested heavily in IT and cannot afford to discard these legacy systems. So how does the Cloudstore administration ensure smaller vendors can integrate as effectively with existing solutions to ensure the playing field is truly level?
In any industry if a buyer has to choose between a known entity and an unknown one it is no surprise they usually go for the safe option. With Cloudstore there has already been some debate about how the vendors present their offerings, because it is clearly not uniform. That makes marketing these solutions hard and obviously it is going to be harder for the smaller vendors to compete against recognised brands. With culture of risk-aversion heightened by all the high profile IT failures how is Cloudstore going to help to promote the ‘Davids’ to ensure the Whitehall politicos don’t just pick the ‘Goliaths’ they know?
I do believe the Cloudstore can deliver significant value, but as Michael Krigsman has said many times successful IT implementations are a combination of the software working, the implementation sticking to a mutually agreed schedule using the right resources and the customer understanding exactly what goals they want to achieve through the adoption of IT.
While the Cloudstore could be the start of something the spectre of the ‘IT Devil’s Triangle’ still looms large and these fundamental issues have to be addressed for it to a long-term success