Escaping the clutches of the big evil system integrators has long been part of the government's IT rhetoric. Yet confusion reigns as to what the strategy actually is now that previous "disaggregation" plans have been torn up – and those contracts are about to expire.
Outsourcing overall might be on the rise across the public sector, but in the world of central government IT it's become a dirty word.
Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has been clear in apportioning blame to the system integrators for creating "bloated and wasteful IT."
One interim fix to these mega-deals has been the so-called "tower model" where the various IT components are broken up and awarded to different providers – such as desktop, hosting, networks – and managed by one system integration manager (SIAM).
The hope was that by breaking up contracts in this way, the government might eventually move to a multi-sourcing approach as it built up its operational and management skills in-house.
All the big departments have been working towards the tower approach, with the likes of the Ministry of Justice having nearly completed its Future IT Sourcing tower model.
That was all fine until last week when Alex Holmes, deputy director at the office of the CTO in the Cabinet Office, said this approach is no longer the official strategy.
"Organisations have adopted the Tower Model, believing they are following government policy and using best practice, but they are doing neither," he said. "I am now writing this post to be clear that the Tower Model is not condoned and not in line with government policy."
Holmes made the not unreasonable point that it amounts to outsourcing IT again, "but in pieces". He added: "The SIAM provider should not replace good in-house IT capability."
What is far from clear is what the official strategy is. Chances are it will have something to do with a "government as a platform" approach. This appears to involve using common IT applications that do the same thing across all departments, rather than replicating pockets of "siloed" IT.
No concrete transition plan has yet emerged. Moreover, even the most optimistic observer would admit the in-house capability is nowhere near ready, having been outsourced years ago.
Aside from the paucity of IT skills, there is also the massive culture change of getting departments to relinquish their IT power bases and work across government – if this is the approach to which Holmes is alluding.
In the meantime uncertainty remains as to what the government plans to do now its mega Whitehall contracts are on the brink of expiring.
Suppliers and departments are now unclear what will happen next. The Cabinet Office has power to veto IT contracts over £5m. So does that mean a department such as the Home Office, which has been working on plans for a tower model that it was due to unveil next year, will have to go back to the drawing board?
And where will this leave HMRC's £10.4bn Aspire contract, which the National Audit Office has warned could be too risky to change by the expiry date of 2017?
A possible answer could be extending them to the very same system integrators of old, which is exactly what the Department for Work and Pensions did with HP last week.
One insider told El Reg that whatever the Cabinet Office has in mind, it will take a long time: "It will take them another 10 years and several iterations. And the cost of replacing the legacy IT - PAYE tax, VAT, CHIEF (import/export), borders, immigration etc will be hundreds of millions.
"No one can prove Agile is cheaper than the old ways of doing it. Quite the opposite I think - with just as many failures, just smaller and less visible."
Certainly, in terms of how any of this will be achieved, the post raises far more questions than it answers. ®