UK government's cloud ERP strategy seems to be in stasis following top civil servant's move to COVID-19 task force

Or maybe it's that no one wants to touch this complex SaaS migration

Updated The UK government has delayed the award of contracts worth £115m to power the migration from an on-premises platform for ERP to a cloud-based software-as-a-service model.

The Cabinet Office confirmed that one contract worth £15m, first advertised in March last year and initially expected to start 1 November 2020, has yet to be dished out. It had been looking for an implementation partner to replace an Oracle-based Single Operating Platform (SOP) and associated systems with a SaaS cloud-based ERP system covering finance, HR, payroll, and procurement.

The SOP system is used by more than 100,000 civil servants in the Department for Work and Pensions, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Education, and two smaller ministries. The on-prem environment is based on Oracle eBusiness Suite version R12 and supported by Shared Services Connected under a contract due to expire in October 2023.

The deal for the implementation partner for SOP2SaaS, to use its hip and snappy official government title, was not set to include software licensing or subscriptions for the new cloud-based system. The Cabinet Office, which is running the procurement, has yet to respond to The Register's request for comment.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice, one of the departments using the SOP, put its feelers into the market to seek out bids for a potential £100m contract for "the supply, configuration, implementation, support and maintenance of a configured ERP SaaS solution." The prior information notice (PIN) said the role could last 10 years and that a contract notice would appear last August, but none has been forthcoming and the department has also not responded to The Register's questions.

In the notice, the MoJ said it was "considering whether to, as part of this procurement to establish a framework arrangement as a means for central government departments... purchase a configured enterprise resource planning solution" but made it clear the details in the PIN related to the MoJ only.

Alarm bells over progress moving central government departments' ERP to the cloud were set ringing when the person in charge, Government Shared Services executive director Andy Helliwell, left to become operations director of the Cabinet Office's COVID-19 Task Force, according to his LinkedIn profile. The Cabinet Office has not confirmed who will fill the role he vacated*.

The SOP2SaaS plan is part of a broader strategy to move all Whitehall ERP systems to the cloud and SaaS. Helliwell led this strategy, which is designed to transform how HR, finance, and procurement are managed and delivered in central government departments, first published in 2018.

In a blog accompanying a September 2019 refresh to that programme, Helliwell said: "The move to cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) system is the essential precondition for other aspects of the Strategy. We need to sustain momentum here."

The Home Office is already on Oracle Fusion cloud, the METIS implementation, but other departments are at various stages in the journey, with HMRC and the Department for Transport and its agencies running on SAP.

According to the strategy document [PDF], the implementation of a single, core ERP system offers departments "greater efficiency and value relative to the substantial investment required."

Jam tomorrow

It said it would shift all government departments to one of three application providers. The strategy doc said the government shared services body "currently has the ability to support three tier-one suppliers (Oracle, SAP and Workday) with products that meet government's requirements for moving to the cloud (SaaS)."

At least in terms of its procurement timetable, that plan now seems to be slipping. But this should not mean GSS stops improving existing systems.

Speaking at an Institute for Government event last year, Helliwell said: "Something I don't think that we can do is continue to promise people jam tomorrow because we've been promising that for some time and it's no good saying, once you get on the cloud, it's all going to be OK. We need to improve our current systems as well."

He argued that the SOP system had been improving user experience over the last couple of years.

With the Cabinet Office and the MoJ failing to provide an explanation for the cause of procurement delays, Rob Anderson, principal analyst at GlobalData, offered one himself. Writing in the New Statesman last year, he suggested that Shared Services Connected had "largely failed in its objectives to move to [the] SOP to the cloud".

He advised suppliers to approach the £100m MoJ procurement with caution. "The prior information notice (PIN) suggests the MoJ is looking at a 10-year engagement, so the opportunity is unlikely to yield any quick win," he said.

Perhaps the complexity of these projects during a pandemic has left suppliers wondering what wins might be had at all. ®

Updated to add at 11:58 on 27 January, 2021

* The Cabinet Office has been in touch to say the "cross-government work on shared services is led by Matthew Coats, the director general for Government Business Services."

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