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Technology

Fixing the Public Sector IT Debacle

iStock 1411221263 - Global Banking | Finance

Fixing the Public Sector IT Debacle

Public sector IT services are no longer fit for purpose. Constant security breaches. Unacceptable downtime. Endemic over-spending. Delays in vital service innovation that would reduce costs and improve citizen experience. 

While the UK’s public sector is on the front line of a global escalation in cyberattacks, the number of breaches leading to service disruption, data loss an additional costs to rebuild and restore systems are unacceptable and unnecessary. A lack of expertise, insufficient procurement rigour and a herd mentality have led to over-reliance on a handful of vendors, ubiquitous infrastructure models and identical security vulnerabilities that are quickly and easily exploited. 

Mark Grindey2 scaled - Global Banking | FinanceBudgets are adequate. Better, more affordable and secure technologies are mature and proven. As Mark Grindey, CEO, Zeus Cloud, argues, it is the broken tender process that is fundamentally undermining innovation and exposing the public sector to devastating security risk.

Broken Systems

There is no doubt that the UK’s public sector organisations are facing an ever-growing security threat. Alongside public bodies in every developed country, state-sponsored attacks are designed to undermine the delivery of essential services.  And the cost to recover from these cyberattacks is devastating, with councils spending millions to recover from ransomware attacks in recent years.

The ever-rising threat level is, however, just one part of the story. While public sector bodies are prime targets due to the level of sensitive data held, the impact of attacking critical infrastructure and the appeal of targeting a high-profile organisation, not every public body is enduring repeated downtime as a result of breaches.

Nor does a single hack automatically affect every part of the organisation, leading to a disruption of vital services for days, even weeks. So, what differentiates those organisations, such as Bexley Council and Bedford Council that have a good cyber security track record, from the rest? And, critically, what is the best way to propagate best practice throughout the public sector to mitigate risk?

Broken Tender Process

The issue is not budget. The public sector may constantly claim a lack of funding but money is not the root cause of inadequate security or inconsistent service delivery. The problem is how that money is spent. Despite attempts to improve the rigour of public sector IT investment, the current tendering process is fuelling misdirected and excessive spend.

In theory, an open tender model should ensure that money is well spent. It should guarantee the service is delivered by the best provider. In reality, the vast majority of contracts are allocated to the same handful of large organisations. Which would be fine, if the services delivered were top quality, highly secure and fairly priced. They are not. The public sector is routinely charged three times as much as the private sector for equivalent IT deployments. Three times as much.

In addition to this endemic overspending, the reliance on a small number of vendors radically increases the security threat due to the ubiquity of infrastructure models.  When the majority of public sector organisations have relocated to the same public cloud hyperscaler and adopted identical security postures, it is inevitable that a breach at one organisation will be rapidly exploited and repeated in others.

Inadequate Rigour

The current tender process completely lacks rigour. Given the continued security breaches, why are these vendors not being held to account? Why are they still being awarded new contracts? Indeed, why are they winning the business to rebuild and recover the systems damaged by a security breach that occurred on their watch? When other Managed Services Providers and cloud platforms can offer not only better pricing but a far better security track record. Something is clearly going very wrong in public sector procurement.

The public sector is complicit in this overspending: any vendor attempting to come in and charge a lower (fair) amount is automatically discounted from the tender process.  Why? There are multiple reasons, not least that the public sector has been ‘trained’ by the IT industry to expect these inflated costs, but there is also a reliance on dedicated Procurement Officers who lack essential sector expertise.  Why for example, is every single system used by Leicester City Council located on the same public cloud platform? It should be impossible for a system breach to extend and expand across every single part of the organisation yet by failing to understand basic security principles, the council set itself up for expensive failure.

The lack of expertise is a serious concern. Continued reliance on large IT vendors has resulted in many public sector organisations becoming dangerously under-skilled. Given the lack of internal knowledge, organisations often turn to incumbent vendors for information to support the tender process, leading inevitably to further price inflation. Furthermore, when a crisis occurs, reliance on a third party, rather than in-house expertise, leads to inevitable delays that exacerbates problems and results in additional cost to repair and restore systems.

Overdue Oversight

The situation is enormously frustrating for IT vendors with the expertise to deliver lower cost, secure systems. The mis-directed spend has left public sector bodies woefully out of date. Not only are security postures frighteningly old fashioned; but there are unacceptable delays in vital service delivery innovations that would transform the citizen experience and provide operational cost savings.

Given the escalating pressures facing all public sector organisations, change is essential. In-house expertise must be rebuilt to ensure sector experts are involved in the procurement process and pricing expectations must be immediately overhauled: avaricious IT vendors will continue to over charge unless challenged. One option is to appoint an outsourced CTO with broad public and private sector expertise, an individual with the knowledge and experience to call out the endemic over charging and sanity check the procurement process.

It is also important to move away from the herd mentality. Would, for example, an on-premise private cloud solution be a better option than a public cloud hyperscaler? What is the cost comparison of adding in-house security expertise rather than relying on a third party – factoring in, of course, the value of fast response if a problem occurs. It is telling that the handful of local authorities with a good security track record have not adopted the same big vendor, public cloud approach but applied rigour to the procurement process to achieve a more secure and cost-effective approach. Others could and should learn from these organisations.

Conclusion

Good, effective IT systems underpin every aspect of public sector service delivery and, right now, the vast majority are not fit for purpose. It is, therefore, vital to highlight and celebrate the good performers – and challenge those vendors that continue to overcharge and underperform.

Sharing information between organisations, both to support strategic direction and day to day risk mitigation, is vital to propagate best practice. Critically, by pooling knowledge and expertise, the public sector can begin to regain control over what is, today, a broken model. While the public sector continues to flounder with inadequate security and a lack of knowledge, the IT vendors will continue to win. They need to be held to account and that can only happen if public sector organisations come together to demand more and hold the industry to account.

Global Banking & Finance Review

 

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