When the UK Public Sector gets it right

 Local and Central Governments institutions have been purveyors of fine examples of catastrophic IT failures which kept IT journalist quite busy in the past few years.

 But Public Sector IT projects do not always fail and it's quite unfortunate that when there are teams that make things work as they should they don't get the due recognition.

 I’m one of those that often (very often) complains about the way the Public Sector manages projects, is unwilling to take risks and to embrace new and more efficient technologies and I heard too many times the old style CIO mantra “Nobody has ever been fired for buying ‘usual vendors’”.

 

 European Unified Patent Court logoThis time, instead, I’ve been impressed by a team from Newport’s branch of the Unified Patent Court which is the European institution that will unify the management of patents claims across the member states.

It may have been because Welsh people are generally very friendly and helpful and maybe also because the solutions lead, Mark Craddock, has already been through an innovative experience like creating G-Cloud, this experience gave me the impression that a change in Public Sector IT is actually happening.

 

zarafa Collaboration PlatformWhile my organisation has been involved in a small portion of the project providing the secure collaboration platform called Zarafa, required by privacy conscious EU members, it has been a pleasure to see how easy it has been to work in a very productive way with the members of the UPC team and the other suppliers.

The project in question is probably even more complex than many others as it involves creating a brand new case management and communication system for the European Unified Patent Court which will need to reconcile the ideas of the 25 member states and satisfy their requirements.
Due to the time scales and lessons learnt from other implementations of court systems, it was clear that this project could turn into another IT failure story so it was decided that it required a completely different approach.

 

The Unified Patent Court decided that only an Agile approach through fast reacting suppliers which developed and implemented open standard platforms would have been the best way forward as it keeps costs down while it allows quick and painless changes of direction when requirements are updated.

 

Crown Commercial Services G-Cloud frameworkUsing the G-Cloud framework and other EU tenders the UPC has been able to select and bring in all the suppliers with the skills required in a much faster way than by going through the usual tendering processes.

 

In a few months since I’ve been involved in the project I’ve seen all the services coming to life, progressing and adapting to additional requirements incredibly quickly in a way that it wouldn’t have been possible with the usual project management techniques and monolithic approach.

 Some members of the UPC IT Team weren’t used to such a different way of managing projects but quickly adapted and found this new way of working a lot more gratifying as they could quickly see the results of their efforts.

 The team has been able to combine in real life and with real results all the buzzwords that many in the IT industry are talking about but rarely implement:

  • Cloud: while some elements have been procured using G-Cloud in the UK the whole project is hosted in a private Cloud in Germany to be near most of the member countries and to assure an appropriate level of privacy and security.
  • Open Standards: the whole platform has been built using open standards so that whenever changes or integration with other applications are necessary there is no vendor lock-in that could delay or make integration more expensive.
  • Open Source: SMEs have proved to be much faster in adopting innovation so it may have come as no surprise that most of the platform has been developed and delivered using a wide range of Open Source tools and frameworks which reduced further costs and delivery times.
  • Open Data: by combining the benefits of Open Standards and Open Source then Open Data is just an API away. During the recent API Workshop the common integration API have been agreed with scope to easily add more when required.
  • Agile Management: all suppliers have been given an initial set of requirements on which they have been able to provide pricing and delivery time scales. While the deployment was ongoing any issues or additional features required have been dealt with in incremental steps iteratively.
  • User experience/User Needs: a good part of the iteration has been related to User Needs and user feedback to web interfaces and the way the data is presented. It probably hasn’t been very easy to do it but the final version of the project has been able to satisfy the requirements, and tastes, of members from 25 different countries.

 

Now that the project reached a good level of maturity, it has been delivered under budget and earlier than expected it will be handed over to a team in Luxembourg which is tasked with the delivery to the users across Europe.

During the last meeting with the team it has been great to hear the comments coming from both sides, customer and suppliers, as we were all happy of having worked as a team to reach the delivery targets both in terms of deadlines and budgets.

A member of the IPO team, The UPC IT Lead, Ceri Carter, talked about her experience on this project as it opened her eyes to more productive methodologies which aren’t yet common in the public sector, even if it could dramatically improve productivity and increase projects success rates.

 From the supplier side winning Public Sector contracts is not always about profitability but also about the satisfaction of delivering innovation:

 

Cristiano Morganti, PM for Net Service and supplier of the Case Management System commented:

Real Agile methodology, effective team management and user involvement. All of these aspects yielded to an enjoyable way of working and to important, rapid results. A very motivating experience, even more so when it is coming as an initiative from the public sector”.

 

Alick Mighall, Miggle’s MD, who built the public facing website for the court said:

 'It’s been really refreshing to work on a public sector project which has been run in a genuinely Agile and open way. The way the project was managed facilitated a collaborative approach from the start, with roles and responsibilities being really clear. There has been a real sense of team, evidenced by the fact we all hit our respective deadlines within the budget.’

 

I, and surely many other IT companies in the UK, would welcome the fact of having more teams like the one we have worked with in the UPC as it would help in getting more SMEs in delivering innovation very rapidly and efficiently leaving more time to IT journalists to write about how Government can actually be an example for the private sector.

Paolo Vecchi - CEO
Omnis Systems Ltd