Time is money

CRN recently broke the story of the thousands of laptops left in storage after procurement problems at Torfaen Council. Hannah Breeze looks at why the situation occurred

By Hannah Breeze

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19 Nov 2012


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Laptop being put in bin

"Public sector finances are bound by regulation, especially government grants. If you want to use grant-funded equipment for anything other than
the specified purpose, you need to have... government approval, and we are still waiting for an outcome on this."

When Peter Durkin, Torfaen County Borough Council's deputy chief executive, explained to ChannelWeb why 2,400 publicly funded laptops are still gathering dust in storage following their procurement in 2011, the problem of red tape surrounding public sector ICT procurement became clearer than ever.

Torfaen, along with neighbouring Monmouthshire County Council, procured 8,600 devices from reseller XMA with money mainly supplied by the Welsh government. The councils were under the impression that Newport City Council was also on board with the plans, but when it dropped out last June, Torfaen and Monmouthshire had a problem on its hands, and an expensive one at that.

The 2,400 laptops - worth £1m - were left in storage while Torfaen and Monmouthshire councils attempted to find another buyer, which is yet to happen well over a year later, and seven months after the expiry of the devices' warranties.

While talks between the councils and the Welsh government are nearing a conclusion, the news, which was picked up by local and regional press, as well as by the BBC and ITV, highlighted the problems facing the public sector on the issue of ICT procurement.

Rubber stamp with Approved sign on white backgroundThe final decision on Torfaen's laptops is expected at the end of November, which will mark 17 months since Newport dropped out of the process. When Durkin justified why the laptops could not be put to use, he partly blamed the time-consuming processes governing approval of what to do with publicly funded equipment.

The Welsh government told ChannelWeb it was taking time to ensure that the grant funds were spent appropriately, but while the intentions of ensuring public money is used properly may be good, when it comes to technology, time is precious and the short refresh cycle can see warranties expire and software fast become out of date.

While the Torfaen example has been well documented, independent IT consultant John Rudkin, who has a number of years' experience working with the public sector and schools' IT, said time is a key factor holding back the public sector across the board.

"Working together is the key in the public sector for getting things at a better price; the more units you need, the cheaper they will be. But the mechanisms in the public sector are not fast or agile enough. Bigger procurements have to go out to EU tender, which adds even more time," he explained.

"Ultimately, councils get together to save money and they end up doing the opposite because the more parties involved means more time is added to the process."

Speaking anonymously to ChanelWeb, one channel source, who is also a local taxpayer, said he too believed that time was to blame in Torfaen.

"The [Welsh government] is wasting even more money debating this, and exacerbating the incompetence by having the debates," he said. "I understand that it is central government money and there have to be audits
and criteria to satisfy, but we should be able to sort out this sort of thing in a lunchtime, and not have a team of civil servants looking into the ramifications."

Business man trying to stop timeAlthough the situation in Torfaen suggests that local authorities spend a lot of time deciding where public money is allocated, from a channel perspective, the tendering process can also be drawn out, eating into the time that the technology is still relevant.

According to the government's advice for companies wishing to supply
the public sector, a five-step process must be completed, including finding a contract, registrering interest and being invited to tender before the decision process even begins.

When Torfaen Council initially looked to procure laptops as part of its Digital Valley vision plans, it advertised a tender for just 408 laptops, which was originally scrapped in favour of the 8,600 laptops which were eventually procured from XMA without having gone to tender. The council claimed that time constraints meant the much larger order could not be advertised - further suggesting that timing is a big issue within public sector procurement.

Money matters
But it is not just time which is holding back public sector technology progress, as funding cuts from central government mean an increasing amount of pressure is put on local councils to save money.

Torfaen Council's Durkin said investing in new technology within the education sector is a huge priority, and forms part of the borough's Digital Valley vision. The laptops, whose fate has caused controversy, form part of the iLearn Wales project which is intended to bring cutting-edge resources to schoolchildren across the area.

Although Torfaen sees the importance of investing in technology, other councils are not as keen to part with their cash, he added.

"It has not been easy to get [other local councils or public sector authorities] to invest in our vision so far. However, we are comforted by the Welsh government's [interest], and we will wait until others share the vision that we have," he said.

The reluctance of the public sector to invest in new technology is obvious across the country, added Rudkin, who said that in his experience, local authorities often have to deliberately downgrade new software to avoid paying for new, upgraded technology.

He said: "A few years ago, I saw a [public sector organisation] buy the then-new generation of tablet PCs. They decided to run XP on them, but they were not designed for that, and it cost a huge amount for support as they would not work properly. Downgrading is not the answer because it costs more time and money in the end.

"It might seem to them like a no-brainer to stick with the equipment and software they have in order to save money, as they keep the cash in the short term. But it is blinkering them; the public sector needs to open its eyes and see the new opportunities.

"Things change so rapidly in technology, but the public sector is still not as cutting edge as other sectors. In the end, they are pressured, and they stick to what they know."

The Digital Valley vision

Behind the procurement blunder, the laptops form part of the borough's innovative plan to transform Torfaen and Monmouthshire into the "Digital Valley".

The BBC reported in March that the economies of west Wales and the south Wales valleys have fallen further behind the European average, and areas of the country ranked frequently among ISPreview's study into the UK streets with the slowest broadband. But despite the figures, Torfaen has plans for its schools' technology facilities to rival those of the UK's best-equipped establishments.

The controversially procured laptops, 6,200 of which are fully functioning in Torfaen and Monmouthshire schools, form part of the iLearn Wales project, which aims to provide pupils aged between 14 and 16 with education-enhancing technology. The PCs, along with Macs, iPads, smart phones and even professional-standard recording studios are available to some schools in the area, and the council hopes to roll out schemes of a similar standard across the region in the future.

welsh-flagAs part of the investigation into the surplus laptops, ChannelWeb was invited on a tour of some of the flagship schools, and the results of the scheme were difficult to fault. It was clear to see from dropping in on classrooms that the technology was a huge benefit to the children, who loved using the devices.

But it is not just inside the classrooms where Torfaen is looking to lead the way for Wales' technological future, as its Shared Resource Centre houses data halls in which public sector data from across Wales is stored.

The council has also formed SRS Business Solutions Ltd, a trading company designed to sell on space in its data halls to the private sector as a way of bringing in additional revenue in order to reinvest in public services.
Durkin said that SRS forms a crucial part in the council's digital plans.

He said: "The establishment of SRS is a way for us to mitigate public spending cuts. In doing this, we hope to achieve a centre of digital business in Torfaen, and to see the likes of Cisco, Microsoft and HP do business with us. [We also want them] to establish business here and to provide high quality employment in the area; that is our vision, a Digital Valley."

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