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The dos and don’ts of ICT outsourcing

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The past decade has seen an explosion in outsourcing by local government. The fields of human resources, waste collection and information and communications technology have seen dozens of contracts signed by councils looking to lower their costs.

Of course, outsourcing has happened for reasons other than cost. The arguments about employment rights are familiar ones, but in the field of computing there’s been another factor. ICT and digital technology has been outsourced not just to reduce costs, but to rid councillors and council officers of a potentially worrying and complex issue: working out how councils should be using computers and digital technologies to improve the lives of their citizens.

For a good few years this may have seemed a very sensible idea. There’s no shame in admitting you don’t understand something and passing it on to a contracted expert to handle. We do this every time we take a car to be repaired at a local garage, or ourselves to the doctor. We don’t have to be car experts to be car users.

Unfortunately for local government, the internet has become so transformative so quickly that officers and councillors cannot now do their jobs without at least some understanding of what modern technologies can and cannot do.

Knowledge of computing has moved from the periphery - like knowledge of car repair - to the centre. As it makes this move to the core of business, it has become apparent that ‘outsourcing the whole lot’ isn’t a viable way forward. Here are some suggestions about which bits you should and shouldn’t be looking to contract out.

Digital technologies you can outsource

IT cloud

There is no longer a need for councils to own their own data centres, or in fact their own servers. The market for rented hosting (‘the cloud’) is now mature and increasingly reasonably priced. Moreover, there is no need for councils to develop any kind of hardware technologies at all, except in very rare situations where the market doesn’t supply a particularly niche kind of technology (perhaps for very specific disabilities).

Second, you can outsource large parts of the recruitment and vetting of senior ICT-literate staff. There is a vicious circle in public sector organisations that means that non-technologically literate managers have to hire literate staff, but don’t have the skills to differentiate the real thing from imitators. Leaning on an expert outsider (without conflicts of interest) can help councils to acquire the skills required to ensure good decisions are made on their behalf.

There is also no need for councils to directly employ the staff who lay networking cables in buildings, who service mobile phones and laptops, and who make sure the printers are working. However, this does not mean you can or should lose control of the policies under which these staff operate. If you suddenly decide it is OK for people to bring iPads into the office, you don’t want to discover that your outsourcing company says “not until 2017”.

Last, you also don’t need to be paying people to develop standard office software for word processing, spreadsheets and so forth. This market is more competitive than it has been for 20 years, and the off-the-shelf products are good. The same is true of payroll systems.

What you shouldn’t outsource - ever

The previous section argued that councils can safely outsource the design and production of large chunks of hardware, software and hosting. However, while producing the ingredients can be left to the farmers, it is vital that the chef works for you.

Never outsource your ability to understand how technology can help the council

For a long time, computing felt like something that could be safely left to the IT nerds in the basement to deal with, while senior council officers and councillors dealt with the real business of government. As this prejudice was slowly solidifying, the world changed - traumatically.

Suddenly companies such as Amazon or Lastminute were killing rivals (and whole sectors) in virtually no time. What made these companies different, and what makes them the managerial model for many 21st-century organisations, is that they prized managers with digital customer service skills above all else.

In the future, all council senior managers need to be able to grasp what sorts of technology are available, what sorts of prices are reasonable to pay, and what sort of outcomes are reasonable to expect, as part of their baseline competence. They don’t have to be experts, but they must know that passing the buck by outsourcing the whole lot isn’t an option.

The first step required to make this happen is to ensure that there is at least one senior council officer, working directly to the council’s senior management, who has a professional-level ability to evaluate the wisdom of technology decisions being made by ICT outsourcing partners.

This person should have quite detailed knowledge of modern digital technologies, and should be strongly, personally keen on improving standards of customer experience. Their first job should be to tell the chief executive and council leader where the council’s grasp on its own technologies is weak or unsafe.

If you are in a council that needs to ask a consultant or an outsourcing partner every single time it needs to make a significant decision relating to computing, you are in a council that is operating a pre-internet management structure. That needs rectifying.

Never outsource control of what services your staff can use

It is an all-too-common experience to hear of councils that cannot cope with staff who want to do their work via devices such as iPads, or through channels such as Facebook. Blanket bans result, producing unhappier and less productive staff.

Whichever parts of IT infrastructure get outsourced, it is vital that the people who determine whether or not staff can use particular devices or channels work for the council themselves. And when such staff work in-house, they can be tasked with making sure that no outsourcing arrangements introduce disproportionate fees or fines when staff want, or need, to use new digital tools.

Never completely outsource control over any significant aspect of your website

Completely outsourcing a council website probably seemed a sensible thing to do when the web was a niche channel, and most councils were just running websites to comply with an irritating central government mandate.

Unfortunately, the outsourcing model is terrible for the delivery of effective, usable, cost-saving websites. The distance between user needs and delivery produced by outsourcing arrangements is just too wide, and the speed of improvement is too slow. Consequently, councils that decided to outsource their websites a few years ago have watched their sites stagnate somewhere in the late 1990s.

This is not to say that your website should be entirely built in-house. Rather it means that your web team should have the skills and management freedom to buy in what is best bought in, choose free open source solutions when they suit best, and build in-house what is best built in-house.

Many council webmasters do already have these skills, but in outsourcing arrangements they are denied the tools and power required to do their job. Thus constrained, these people don’t add value to your organisation. Instead they manage decline before an inevitable (and expensive) crisis at some point in the future.

I hope these tips will enable you to take some steps towards making digital technology work for your citizens, and for your colleagues.

Tom Steinberg is the director of mySociety.org, a non-profit social enterprise that supplies digital consulting and services, such as FixMyStreet, to councils. He is @steiny on Twitter and director@mySociety.org

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