Michael CrossEditorThursday 26 January 2012

Whitehall refusing to probe cartel claims, say MPs

The government has failed to respond to a parliamentary call for an investigation into claims that large systems integrators operate in the manner of a cartel in public sector contracts, MPs say today.

In a follow-up report into last summer's "recipe for rip-offs" investigation into government IT, the Public Administration Select Committee warns that, despite good intentions, the government is not doing enough to prevent future project failures.

The report calls attention to "unnacceptably poor benchmarking of government spending on IT".

It also proposes more efforts to promote "digital by default" public services, including rewarding civil serants for using social media to promote digital channels to public services.

The committee's original report, subtitled "A recipe for rip-offs" said that the government depended on an "oligopoly" of large IT suppliers. It also warned of "weaknesses in the government's capacity to plan and drive through wholesale change in the way it uses and exploits IT in delivering public services". It accused the government of failures "leading to the waste of an obscene amount of public money".

Today's report contains the government's responses, which the committee generally welcomes. It says it took the unusual decision to delay publication of the response in order to take advice on progress. It says it is "encouraged" by the National Audit Office's findings of change under the new government. "This is a promising start. "It also commends the government for a "generally constructive and proactive response".

However alongside the government's response, the PASC publishes comments from key witnesses to its inquiry - the academic team of Helen Margetts, Oxford Internet Institute and Patrick Dunleavy and Jane Tinkler of the LSE. On policy towards the "oligopoly" they comment" that the Cabinet Office, which is reponsible for reviewing large contracts "has historically proved weak in influencing government -contractor relations" because it is not itself a big spender. It notes that the government response "does not take up the committee's point on commissioning an independent review of the issue of olgopolistic suppliers."

They also say that efforts to create a common ICT infrastructure for the public sector will have little effect on reducing the influence of outdated legacy systems in government.

Bernard Jenkin MP, the committee's chair, said in a statement: "This was a generally constructive response which we welcome, but it does not suggest that the government yet grasps how much must be done. The problems in IT procurement go deep and require major changes. This can only be achieved by bringing in IT executives and buyers from large and small companies, who understand what they are buying and the innovations on offer.  This expertise cannot be contracted out."

*Government and IT - a recipe for rip-offs: time for a new approach. A further report, with government responses. Public Administration Select Committee.