Britain has a new government but the IT industry is likely to face a prolonged period of uncertainty as the new occupants of Downing Street assess their options.
The new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has said it will cancel some high profile government IT projects - such as the National Identity Scheme - and make substantial cuts in public spending. Outsourcing and offshoring are expected to play a crucial part of the budget reduction process.
However, there is the prospect that some technology projects, like the NHS National Programme for IT, could become a point of contention within the new coalition.
Whether or not that happens, the city expects some delays in the announcement of new outsourcing contracts. IT outsourcers' share prices slid after the election with veteran industry analyst Richard Holway, chairman of TechMarketView, suggesting that a coalition could “lack the steel to take the tough decisions required to outsource much of the public sector back office activities as stated in the Conservative Manifesto”.
The Conservatives used the election to reiterate existing plans – to freeze major new IT spending, and to make changes in government procurement by opening the market to smaller suppliers.
What the IT industry predicts
- Siginficant cuts to government IT spending
- Scrapping centralised NHS patient records and ID cards
- Offshoring to take a greater role in projects
- Potential clashes over UK jobs in technology
- An attempt to move to more shared services and open source software
It will take some time for the new government’s attitude to people working in technology to become clear. In its manifesto, the Tories made few direct promises in this area – a clear contrast with recent Labour plans promising funding for 20,000 higher education training places in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. The Liberal Democrats had promised the creation of 100,000 green jobs, including technology, if they had won the election outright.
Tough cuts to government IT spending are expected, with an emergency Budget due to be held within 50 days. Some existing projects are also likely to be axed – both parties are agreed that centralised NHS patient records need to be scrapped under the £12.7 billion National Programme for IT, alongside the cancellation of the entire £5 billion ID card scheme. But biometric passports, called by some as “ID cards by the back door”, will remain.
Any cancellation of contracts is likely to attract heavy penalties from suppliers, along complex legal disputes. The Department of Health has already racked up costs nearing £40 million in troubled contract negotiations with NHS IT suppliers.
A number of projects had already been sent abroad in recent months under the Labour government, including a £600 million pensions processing deal with Tata Consultancy Services in India. The company is also developing the new child support and maintenance scheme systems.
Any cuts to UK work will meet strong industry resistance, whether they lead to offshoring or cancellation. Labour had insisted it would cut £3.2 billion from IT spending by 2012, plans that Socitm, the industry body for local government IT managers, immediately lambasted as cutting costs instead of improving services.
The Conservatives promises are much tougher. The party brought in former Labour efficiency adviser Sir Peter Gershon, who calculated that a further £12 billion could be cut, including £4 billion from public sector IT and £3 billion from contract renegotiation.
In recent months, IT workers across the UK on public and private sector contracts have protested at job losses, difficult conditions, pay freezes and the limiting of their retirement benefits. A number of workers have even gone on high profile strikes, with HP and Fujitsu seeing major industrial action on key contracts. The Conservative party has traditionally taken a harder line on unionism, but Cameron’s position remains to be seen, especially with the Liberal Democrat influence.
The Conservatives also say they would cap projects at £100 million. But no definition has been given so far on how having smaller IT projects would deliver definitive improvements.
The Liberal Democrats called for improved government IT procurement, and encouraged greater use of cloud computing and open-source software.
The coalition may focus IT efforts on the use of shared services to cut costs. But successful examples remain scarce, so far, and the move has been described as a "massive" culture change.
A debate continues to rage over the new Digital Economy Bill, which became law last month. Users face being cut off if they access pirated material. The Conservatives supported the Bill, but the Liberal Democrats expressed staunch opposition – supported in their calls by broadband firm Talk Talk and the Open Rights Group, who said it limited free speech and imposed heavy burdens on internet service providers.