'National IT platform' would enable UK to become more competitive, says Cabinet Office adviser

By Sooraj Shah
20 Jun 2012 View Comments

The government should back a national platform combining back-office functions in order to benefit from open standards, enabling the UK to become a more competitive country, according to ICT futures adviser to the Cabinet Office, Dr Mark Thompson (pictured).

Thompson, who advises deputy government CIO Liam Maxwell, told Computing that such a national platform would bring together back-office functions and save both the private and public sector money in the long-term.

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"Instead of individual organisations doing their finance or HR functions by using different technology and business processes, the platform would allow them to do it in the same way. So, for example, many applications are built on ERP modules or CRM tools for human resources, finance and the business – these could be made available on a national platform.

"Organisations are used to paying premium prices for brand names in order to have these tools because currently there is a requirement to have specific standards. [The government] is throwing that out of the window and suggesting how to harness the tremendous power of open standards," he said.

Thompson added that the platform would enable SMEs to do business more cost-effectively as much of the back-office functions could be carried out in the cloud.

He said that, currently, most enterprise computing is "a bit of a mash-up" between case load, desktops and connectivity, and that this does not have to be "procured again and again, hundreds of thousands of times across the country".

"He said that a government-driven national platform could do for UK plc what Amazon has done for web hosting. "Why is it in this country, for UK plc, if you are setting up a business there is not a national platform?" he asked.

Thompson argued that the platform should be a component-based, publicly-owned platform.

"It would not cost very much to develop," said Thompson. The key, he added, is for the government to realise the true potential of open standards.

"The government has to understand the progressive adoption of open standards is about turning IT into a real utility, like electricity, and if you do that then there is no difference between public and private sector IT," he said.

"That means it does not matter if you are running a vertically integrated business, whether it is HSBC or HMRC, as [the platform] does not discriminate between the public and private sectors it would just say 'the more a business wants to be idiosyncratic and special and do special things, the more you will pay for it'; the market will punish idiosyncrasy.

"The country can then reorganise the way in which government departments or businesses do business around a much more lateral, horizontal and less vertically 'siloed' set of arrangements, and by doing so, the UK can become much more competitive," he said.

Thompson added that the government has made some great strides in its open standards project both in terms of changing the way in which people think about what is possible in IT, and the way in which IT should be procured.

"The Cabinet Office is doing well in looking at the component-based approach and encouraging re-use across government at the architectural level. But my interest is pushing [the open standards project] further than this," he said.

The open standards consultation, a Cabinet Office-led exercise to define open standards for public sector IT, ended on 4 June 2012.

The consultation itself was extended in April by one month following an alleged conflict of interest by one of its "independent facilitators", who was found to be advising Microsoft at the same time.

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