In a recent blog outlining its three-year strategy, the Government Digital Service (GDS) CEO Tom Read wrote in compelling style about user-centric services: “At GDS, our mission is to build a simple, joined-up and personalised experience of government for everyone. Using our unique position at the centre of government, we will develop services that just work for the user, however complex the underlying systems.”
I concur wholeheartedly with plans to create joined-up, cross-department services and to banish data silos. Who wouldn’t agree? And this argument certainly supports Michael Gove’s broader pledge of a dynamic, “genuinely transformational” state, writes Mark Gibbison, Head of Strategic Motions for New Business, Unit4. But by placing draconian restrictions on the choice of enterprise resource planning (ERP) software provider, the Government’s practices are running diametrically opposed to those fine words.
The ERP system is not just AN Other piece of software. It provides the fundamental underpinnings of sophisticated operations infrastructure from HR and finance to procurement and payroll. The ERP is home to many of the big levers by which organisations can transform how they are run, re-engineering processes, creating a self-service culture, creating efficiencies and time and cost savings. Government and the GDS have done a lot of work they can be justly proud of in the past but the decision to confine the choice of ERP to three well-known vendors won’t help central Government avoid the silos and inflexibility that leave so many organisations hamstrung. In attempting to simplify choice and accelerate possibilities for change, the government is conversely limiting the flexibility of central government departments and bodies to adopt the most suitable ERP platform for their needs.
These are of course very popular systems but they are designed primarily for large organisations and many of the smaller agencies and non-departmental bodies forced to select from them are more analogous to small businesses. For them, the restrictiveness and complexity of these tools will be anathema. Just as with Verify and Universal Credit, the government’s intentions are good but its thinking is muddled and its execution all wrong.
The new world of ERP is all about low-code/no-code development, extensible services, API integration across vendors and high levels of usability. This model is a good fit for government where change is the only constant as departments and offices merge and demerge, and roles and responsibilities shift. If the ERP system requires lots of hand coding to make changes to functionality, workflow re-routing, access approvals and so on, then that represents a serious slowdown in efficiency and a reduced ability to introduce shared services and other progressive measures.
Ringfencing ERP choice means not just software overkill but introducing risk because if systems are recalcitrant or frustrating to users then those users may well turn to consumer-grade tools.
Without choice and flexibility, the UK risks being hurt by an incapacity to move fast and decisively. Smaller states such as Estonia have shown the power of a digitally-enabled state and very few countries are using ERP incumbents as default choices across government agencies.
It would be a shame if procurement oversimplification were to block progress at a time when, more than ever, we need agility and openness. We need more streamlined supplier relationships and integrated employee information that lets us keep track of our people, gets the best from them, rewards them and gives them the chance to grow, learn and share what they know. We need tighter alignment between back-office functions with frontline citizen services, ample control over data accessibility and the economies to create more space for innovation. That won’t be achieved by homogenous, single-vendor contracts and systems that are built for a different, less flexible world.