When the dust settled from the government Digital Service's deputy director Alex Holmes' surprising blog asking government departments to "knock down the towers of service integration and management (SIAM)", exactly what Holmes meant remained unclear.
Computing questioned what approach government departments should take if the tower model was indeed not "following government policy and using best practice", as Holmes had claimed. We asked for an official line from the government, explaining what is condoned, what isn't, and how the various organisations could transition away from the tower model.
In a subsequent blog, Holmes claimed that the debate on what exactly defined a tower model highlighted the problem of following specific named models rather than focusing on the substance of what is needed and working out the right way to buy it.
"The debate shouldn't be about fixed models (and certainly not what is the government model), but how do we, like any other service-orientated organisation, build and buy services to meet the needs of our users? IT based around services, not departmental or contract silos," he said.
But while the idea to move to a flexible model in which services and users are at the forefront of plans is the idyllic dream, surely the government should explain exactly what kind of model is condoned going forwards?
Perhaps by giving proven use cases from a government department that can be looked at as the gold standard - demonstrating several different approaches to doing something "right".
"Cutting things into arbitrary 'towers' is unlikely to get you the right result, in the same way that cutting things into arbitrary small pieces won't work either," Holmes went on to state.
He has unintentionally triggered more questions than answers with his second blog: which tower models could you say are accepted; what about those organisations that are midway through their tower model - how do they transition away from such a model?
In an email sent to Computing, Holmes said:
"Organisations need to work out what is right for them based on user needs. This will be different depending on the situation."
But does that mean it has to be different from the tower model, or can it still work? The most important question, perhaps, is what do public sector bodies think?
Last month, DWP (the Department of Work and Pensions) said it would not use the tower model going forwards. The department's contracts would be disaggregated into different scopes of work - some of which will go out for tender, and some will come in-house. But while DWP is seemingly reacting instantly to GDS's blog, other public sector bodies are not so sure.
Ed Garcez, the tri-borough CIO of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and Hammersmith and Fulham councils, told Computing that Holmes' blog could be an indirect reference to a central government department that has not had the desired effect from using the tower model, and is being used to nudge that department to change the way it goes about procuring IT.
He said the way the three councils interpreted the tower model seemed different to the explanation that was given by Holmes. The tri-borough looked to find a supplier for end-user computing, datacentres and service desk in three separate contracts at the end of 2013.
"In our interpretation, these 'towers' are simply the contracts that refer to the elements of the IT services. We've been very clear that we retain within the in-house team the 'brain' of the organisation, which is what GDS suggests is best practice," he said.
He added that the focus remains on the user - something which Holmes claimed was impossible in the tower model.
"It is very much about the user and improving the user experience," Garcez insisted.
"I think [what Holmes said in his blog] is different to what we're doing and we just happen to call them both tower. If anyone said to me, 'do you think it is a good idea to procure a range of services that need to be joined up, and considered carefully in their integration in order to deliver an optimum end-user experience, but just buy them from the market with little co-ordination', my answer would obviously be no, that's a terrible idea," he said.
GDS does not have mandate over local government, so councils currently have autonomy in the way they deliver IT. But this could be about to change, as the government said in its official budget document that GDS, along with HM Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government, will "collaborate" with partners in local government to "enable more customer-focused, digitally enabled and efficient local service".
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice last month said it had awarded nine out of 10 contracts as part of its own tower model, and that the Cabinet Office had approved all the contracts awarded so far.
An MoJ spokesperson told Computing last week that the department liaises closely with GDS and the Cabinet Office in its approach to technology "to ensure it is effective, efficient and complies with government policy".
But the spokesperson went on to state:
"Transition to the new model is still in the early stages, and we have no plans to change our approach."
The MoJ clarified that this 'new model' is in fact the tower model. Perhaps it still refers to the model as 'new' because it hasn't even finished procuring under the model. This suggests that the MoJ is undeterred by the GDS blog and is sticking to its guns - unlike DWP.
Another department going forward with a tower model approach is the Metropolitan Police. According to a Digital Policing Newsletter, sent to all staff, the Met Police is looking to outsource its software development capabilities, in a programme that is to be split into functional "towers" - with redundancies expected.
The Met Police declined to reveal any more details on the matter, while HM Treasury, whose ICT 2015 programme is based on a SIAM tower approach, is yet to respond to questions from Computing.
Owning the solution
In Holmes' first blog, he said the tower model could create a situation where the customer buys a number of incompatible parts and then asks a SIAM provider to put them together and make it work.
He suggested that it was more effective to design and own the overall solution, so that departments know it works and can put it together and run it themselves. Alternatively, he suggested that the department owns the solution itself, puts it together on its own and uses a SIAM provider to run it.
Garcez said the tri-borough doesn't intend to engage a SIAM provider because it is doing the integration and management itself. He added that with every model there is a challenge to ensure there are the right skills to make it work.
But while the three councils have wanted to keep many of the skills in-house, Garcez acknowledges that very few organisations have the luxury of being able to do everything internally, and this is the reason he believes a hybrid model is the best approach.
"We have achieved significant cost savings - millions of pounds - through more effective procurement and through challenging the markets through the process that we call towers, and at the same time we've seen customer satisfaction improve as well.
"I think we need to focus the delivery of ICT on all levels from infrastructure up to the user, so we have to be designing for a better user experience, but I don't think that means you can't buy certain commodity services in what I would describe as a tower arrangement, and indeed I think GDS do that; they don't deliver their own network, for example, they procure it," he said.
"I think in our case, certainly in the tri-borough case, we see the towers as being non-prescriptive, so none of the towers are exclusive and none of them have a volume commitment, so they are a route to sourcing stuff but not a mandatory route," he added.
Holmes's suggestion in both his blogs, and in his email to Computing, is that there is no one-size fits all solution, and that may be true. But his proposal that the tower model "is not condoned" may be misguided - the tri-borough seems to have found a way to make it work, and perhaps the MoJ can too. Others such as DWP may find themselves better off without a tower model. Perhaps a tower model is the perfect size to fit some departments?
"I don't read [the GDS] blog and think anything we're doing is wrong," Garcez concluded - suggesting that the GDS blogs have created more confusion than clarity.
As GDS's remit has been expanded to allow it to work with local government, councils will surely be wary of a top-down approach. Dismissing a model that is clearly working for three councils probably isn't a good way to start.
Read Computing's previous analysis on this topic: Government IT exec to Whitehall CIOs: 'You've got IT procurement all wrong' - but is he right?
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