Apologies: this is a rant. Ranting is rarely useful or interesting, and we mostly avoid it on this blog. But this one seemed justified. I wrote it in 2010, but didn’t publish it. I’ve spent some time cutting out a lot of stuff, but I hope what’s left is still interesting. So if you’re with me, here we go….
– Blind insistence on building all ‘IT stuff’ in-house is a shocking waste of money.
– I’m not just a supplier moaning about unfairness. This is significant waste that should stop.
Late 2010, discussions with multiple organisations about how our Citizen Space consultation system could integrate with their other web assets (corporate sites, other consultation and engagement tools, Twitter feeds etc). Result: “yes there are multiple standards-based ways to play nicely with others“. Length of conversation, usually about 5 mins.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
Also in 2010, we lost a run of Citizen Space tenders for public sector organisations who ‘chose to go with an in-house solution’. So we win some, we lose some. But this was losing for the wrong reasons. Hence: rant. So to business…
On the one hand, we have Citizen Space, or – to avoid the impression I’m just pushing Delib software here – similar productised systems for consultation and engagement, from other suppliers, large and small.
On the other hand we have in-house solutions for consultation and engagement, usually a custom extension of the existing website system.
Can we do some maths?
Citizen Space has had over 1,200 days of design, development and testing.
It has has been co-designed over three years with people from multiple local authorities, government departments and public bodies. We built it using knowledge gained from our previous consultation system which was created in 2003 and developed for around five years.
Citizen Space is productised, tested, and widely used. It’s built using proven open-source software, with no vendor-lockin. It has been audited for accessibility by the Shaw Trust and security tested by Surecloud. We usually host it and there’s no hassle deploying it. There’s a client feedback process and a commitment to ongoing development and upgrades. Citizen Space even comes with a comprehensive user manual.
And we’re not the only ones; there are at least five competing systems for consultation and engagement. We aim to be the best, but we’re certainly not the only ones who’ve got years of experience developing these systems.
But enough about suppliers. What about the in-house project?
Staff time isn’t free. A 30k salary seems a reasonable benchmark for public sector IT and comms staffers. Some will be more, some will be less. But it seems fair. Employing that person should cost about £200 per day in real money (including tax, office costs, training, pension etc).
So for the typical price of a ready-to-go, fully-project-managed deployment of Citizen Space, an organisation could invest perhaps 40 days of staff time in creating their own solution. Which initially seems quite a lot. That’s 40 days to create the entire system. Luxury. It’ll be done by Friday.
That’s 40 days to schedule, project manage, develop, and deploy the system into successful use. Should be fine.
That’s 40 days to allocate staff, organise meetings, capture requirements, get requirements signed off, do initial design documents, get design documents reviewed and signed off, create a technical spec, review the technical spec, develop the database schema and backend code, prototype the GUI, test the GUI, refine the GUI, create cross-browser standards-compliant CSS, review and implement accessibility, implement multi-user and multi-role permissions and security, overcome technical issues and items in the design that were missed, changed or failed test, load-test and performance-test the system, penetration test the software and the development environment, deploy the software for real users, provide instructions and support in using it, deal with teething troubles, and workflow or usability problems that only arise from the system being actively used, and meanwhile maintain the project in a risk managed environment with a clear audit trail on spending and costs, whilst also fully complying with information security and data protection issues. And it will be done by Friday, right?
Do I protest too much?
Perhaps. It’s quite possible that an organisation simply can’t find the budget for Citizen Space – or for any of our competitors, including those who will offer a far-less-complete, but cheaper, (and possibly sufficient) systems for consultation and engagement. In which case, with less budget, it might be fair to spend, say 20 days of internal time developing an in-house solution.
But with 20 days, an in-house project will achieve 1/60th of the features, quality, security and reliability of Citizen Space, or a similar system. And 20 days probably isn’t enough.
And this assumes that cost is the main-driving factor in these decisions. But often it’s not. The outcome often seems to be driven by the not-invented-here fallacy, where organisations spend more to achieve less value because of an unwillingness to accept cheaper, better value external solutions (reasons might be internal politics, wooly thinking, or simply lack of knowledge).
But you’re a supplier Andy. You protest too much.
Well maybe, but I’m passionate about value for money for our clients, and for taxpayers. I’m an engineer at heart, and it makes me sad when I see the wheel being pointlessly reinvented; it’s a waste, and the results are bad. It’s junk engineering, and junk procurement. It often happens for indefensible reasons. And when it happens, taxes are being wasted. Can’t we stop it?
Caveats + ‘for the avoidance of doubt’
1. I’m not blindly against developing in-house projects. Where no standard apps or software exists for a problem, in-house development makes sense.
2. The most common justification for in-house projects is “corporate policy is to use [insert name of CMS vendor or platform here], so we have to use that”. If that’s policy, it would be handy to avoid issuing tenders and RFPs for things that the organisation is not allowed to procure. It’s kind of a waste of resources for UK SMEs. I know sometimes it’s an internal battle, and tenders are part of that battle. But it’s not really cricket; a tender can cost hundreds of pounds in real money to complete (some of the more stupid, lengthier tenders cost thousands). Where multiple suppliers are asked to tender, it’s a fair amount of waste. I’m not sure that private sector businesses should be bearing the cost of politics inside a public organisation so directly. We would like to help though – by sharing better ways to do things – and helping support business cases for using more efficient, proven, off-the-shelf tools from us and other people.
3. I’ve instigated plenty of in-house software builds. Some I was right about, others I was quite wrong. As web software has matured, we’ve switched to off-the-shelf systems. We binned our mass-mailer and use Campaign Monitor. We binned our in-house CRM system and use Zoho. We binned our ticketing system and use Trac. Sometimes we saved money by doing this, and sometimes we spent a little more, but got a much better system, so we could get on with our jobs and stop wasting time trying to invent and fix our own systems.
4. I’ve assumed that organisations measure the cost of internal time and use that in business cases. Am I being really quite naive about that?
5. I tried to cut out most of the really the ranty bits. How did I do?