What is ‘vanilla’ and why is it important?

Almost all of our public services depend upon ICT to function. Yet much of the technology that underpins these services has been developed over many years, repeatedly modified and updated to reflect changes in legislation and policy. As a result, they fail to provide the high quality support required: they are overly complex, difficult to operate and expensive to maintain.  This is a result of policy changing over time with little consideration given to how these changes might be implemented in an ICT system and the systems themselves being poorly designed, without change and flexibility in mind.

In a fast changing world, systems need to be much more agile and built with change in mind rather than expensive and complex to modify and maintain. Policymakers and business managers need adaptable, open systems that enable them to enhance and improve services and processes in flight – whereas today, the reality is often that ICT has become an organisational constraint rather than an enabler.  Policy also needs to be formed with its implementation in mind, particularly if the current “digital by default” mantra is to be a cornerstone of future delivery.

The single supplier, long-term and expensive contracts of the past have historically restricted effective competition and prevented the adoption of newer, utility-based open technologies that can reduce the complexity and cost of delivering public services.  However, there is some good news: the traditional public sector approach to procuring and using IT is changing, albeit slowly.

Public service infrastructure is old and outdated

Current changes in ICT are enabling a move away from the fragmented approach of the past, where custom systems were hand-crafted by large expensive systems integrators in a way that now appears old-fashioned:

“Six decades into the computer revolution, four decades since the invention of the microprocessor, and two decades into the rise of the modern Internet, all of the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be widely delivered at global scale.” [Wall Street Journal, August 20, 2011]

Because our ICT is now so integrated with our public services, taking advantage of what the technology can offer now means re-engineering the services themselves.

Put another way, ICT maturity is now a step further on, but like our Victorian infrastructure, we are left with the same old ‘organisational plumbing’.  In the past, none of this was possible because the enabling ICT wasn’t developed enough.  All ICT was treated as if it were the same: from commodity requirements such as email and word processing, to one-off complex systems designed to meet the detail of legislation relating to areas such as welfare and taxation.

It was outsourced and delivered by vertically integrated large suppliers who produced code-intensive systems that rarely met user needs. Even where commodity off-the-shelf packages were used, they were usually highly customised, making them difficult to use and expensive to maintain and change.

A resulting confusion has arisen across the public domain, with questions being asked about:

  • increasingly unaffordable public services as currently delivered;
  • reform of civil and other public service operating models and the overwhelming need for re-design especially with the restricted budgets now available;
  • what ‘rightfully’ belongs in public vs private sector; and
  • a perceived stranglehold on the government marketplace by a small ‘oligopoly’ of service delivery organisations.

These are just some of the symptoms of a nineteenth century public service infrastructure that appears increasingly nonsensical, unsustainable and inflexible in the twenty-first century:

“Public services …must respond to the citizens we have become – with 24/7 self-service online access, a greater focus on the quality of service relationships, and shared responsibility for achieving better outcomes.” [UK Commission on 2020 Public Services (2010, p. 8)]

Why is this a problem?

It would generally be regarded as odd to talk of special “government petrol” – since this is a well established utility, with no need of a ‘unique’ refining and distribution infrastructure built solely for government needs.  Yet we continue to treat similar, eminently standardisable functions within our public service organisations like “government petrol”, with the commensurate inflated cost.

In most cases standard functions should be treated as utilities so that many finance, HR and technology functions could be purchased almost as catalogue items, and indeed the G-Cloud “Cloudstore” framework has been constructed as such, but as yet very little purchasing is being done in this way.   Mainly because the public sector continues to ‘reinvent’ slightly different versions of these standard functions over and over again across different departments, local government, arms’ length bodies, police forces, healthcare providers, etc – the taxpayer pays for these over and over again in slightly different guises.  Even worse, in many cases the tax payer pays public servants to pay other people to provide these services over and over again, because it has lost the ability to manage the market properly itself.

So is ‘vanilla’ the answer?

‘Vanilla’ is an important part of the answer and deserves real consideration.  Stopping paying over and over again for slightly different versions of the same thing means taking advantage of commoditized utilities which offer low prices in return for volume.  However, just as my car needs to run on standard petrol if I am to take advantage of the international refining/distribution infrastructure out there (We may grumble about petrol prices, but this ‘utility’ solution is still much cheaper than building my own refinery in my back garden!) public services need to be prepared to do things in an increasingly standard way, which in turn will generate demand for standard, ‘utility’ products and services, delivered cheaply at volume.  This ‘standard’ aspect of utility services is what we mean by ‘vanilla’.

How do we move from a vertically-oriented public service infrastructure, with lots of silos and waste, to an infrastructure that can take advantage of commodity platforms?  How do we implement vanilla?

Culturally in the UK most people won’t change the way they do things just because the Boss tells them to, although this can work in other countries.  Change here will come from persuasion and compelling argument – particularly when faced with increased transparency about the relative costs of continuing to stick with the old ways when compared to standardised cheaper alternatives:.  This is where open standards come in.  In a shift that is as historically momentous for business as the invention of the internet, open standards are starting to turn the organisational world upside down, offering the opportunity for all those prepared to do standardiseable things in standard ways to benefit from utility pricing – and from the innovation that utility platforms generate.  This isn’t about technology only.

The transparency that results from standardisation makes ‘sticking to the old, bespoke ways’ increasingly exposed and extravagantly expensive.  The prize is momentous: a widespread use of common approaches across the public sector, involving a wholesale shift of resources away from government electricity to front-line services, as well as potential savings that run into tens of billions per annum.  It is a redefinition of the state’s role in public service provision.

This does apply elsewhere too, not just the UK : such changes are part of a global change in the way government thinks about the interaction of technology and public services.  The Canadian Government for example has recognised the need to move towards more standardised processes and technologies:

The fiscal restraint measures are driving the need to standardize, consolidate and re-engineer the way government operates and delivers services.  By re-thinking how government delivers services, it will help lower the costs of services while improving the service experience. (source: p.2 International Council for IT in Government Administration Canada Country Report 2012).

But how?

Take Google’s ecosystem: the thousands of organizations that innovate here are motivated by the ‘platform’ of potential mass demand of traffic to the website.  It is not just the openly available/ubiquitous technology that is the platform here; it is the demand that this mass availability generates.

This demand is a commercial platform.

And here lies the clue for the UK government’s role.  If government wants to re-engineer public services for the twenty-first century, it needs to perform several clear tasks.   Just as Google needed to build a platform and make it openly available in order to generate traffic so that its technical platform became a commercial platform, so the UK Government needs not only to build an open  platform but make it readily available and generate demand across the public sector.

In order for this to happen, it will need to drive transparency of behaviours through educating people about the historical shift that is taking place.   So central government needs to:

  • Build an action plan for a platform/innovation-enabled public service operating model
  • Architect a platform-based operating model (technical platform)
  • Educate politicians, civil servants and the public about the need for a new operating model (drive transparency)
  • Stimulate aggregation of demand for common services and platforms across the public sector
  • re-use platform/components across whole public sector wherever possible.

So the UK Government’s CloudStore initiative is an example of the impact that commodity, vanilla model approaches are already having in the public sector but this needs to be a de facto approach for common services.  It provides cloud-based utility models across four categories of services: infrastructure, software, platform and specialist services.  There should be good reasons as to why public sector organisations are not buying from this catalogue.

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