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Reaching towering heights: why government IT procurement is changing

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In a recent blog post, Alex Holmes the deputy director of the Government Digital Service (GDS) slammed the Systems Integration and Management (SIAM) or tower model as it’s sometimes known. Holmes went onto be very clear and direct about his belief that this is not the way that the public sector should procure IT – going as far as stating that it was not in line with GDS policy.

Here, we talk to Mark Hall, public sector director and Peter Nailer, senior bid manager responsible for responding to public sector tenders over G-Cloud, about their views on the tower model of procurement and whether they think that it’s the right or wrong way for public sector organisations.

First up what is the SIAM/Tower Model?

MH: The model is a reaction to how the public sector used to buy technology. In the old days, single vendors were given enormous contracts to deliver entire IT programmes. The contract values were huge and typically ran for ten years. Being locked into a vendor in this way caused all kind of issues. One of the biggest was that if the in-house team wanted to make a change to the system, the whole contract term got extended. That meant more lock in.

The tower model however enables the public sector team to break down the programme into slices and bring in different vendors for each: one for the OS; another to handle desktop virtualisation; a third to look after support; and so on. The possibilities are endless. These towers are bought together and integrated by the in-house team.

This way no tower has an impact on other parts of the programme, changes are limited to that single element.

Doesn’t this overcomplicate the purchasing process?

MH: Not at all. The reason the tower model works so well is that it offers the public sector choice. It improves innovation through competition and is much more flexible – everything that the old system wasn’t. This is why G-Cloud was set up as a tower model of procurement.

It sounds good, so what’s Alex Holmes’ point then?

PN: While it sounds contradictory to buying frameworks put into place by GDS, including G-Cloud, Alex is making a valid point. He’s referring to the problem that while the tower model has broken up these huge contracts and spread them over multiple vendors at the end of the day they’re still outsourcing IT needs. He believes that “it combines outsourcing with multi-sourcing but loses the benefits of either.” Rather, he argues, that in-house teams are sourcing all these different elements and then bringing in a system integrator to make it all work. This defeats the purpose of outsourcing. Holmes instead believes that the in-house need to make it work because that’s the only way there is a focus on the need of the end user rather than on the need of the department.

Focusing on the need of the user sounds like a valid argument.

PN: It is; however, there also needs to be some consideration by the GDS that most in-house teams simply don’t have the same resources to become expert SIs, or network providers, or data centre companies or software houses and so on. That’s why they’re outsourcing in the first place.

One of our customers recently told me that while the government has buying frameworks like G-Cloud and GDS in place none of them are actually appropriate for all the services that they needed. In some situations, like that of a complex national infrastructure programme, contract length limitations and non-negotiable terms actually work against them and don’t help them to secure the best solution.

So is SIAM/tower model the best way for the public sector to procure IT?

MH: It works for most technology projects, yes. But there needs to be an understanding that one size doesn’t fit all – not just in technology but also in the procurement of that technology. What the in-house teams need most is flexibility to buy what they need, how they need it.

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