To outsource or not to outsource?

Open source software provides a myriad of opportunities for organisations and the public sector.

In the six years since the formation of the Government Digital Service (GDS), the body responsible for digital transformation within the UK government, the debate about open source software and how best to implement it in the public sector has intensified.  During that time, the government has played an important role as a proponent of open source as a means of delivering better value to the taxpayer by avoiding expensive proprietary lock-ins. 

This has been important in the progress that has been made by local authorities and other organisations to date, despite the initial uptake of open source technology in the UK’s public sector being steady rather than spectacular for a number of reasons.   

Initially, the GDS focus on open source was to free public bodies from the monopolisation of government contracts by the big IT vendors and the threat this posed to getting the best value for the tax-payers’ money. 

Underpinning this was a desire by the government to bring development skills back in-house, away from the outsourced services that were perceived as expensive. Council outsourcing in Britain for example, began life under the Thatcher government in the 1980s as compulsory competitive tendering. New Labour came on board in the early 2000s, pushing the creation of markets in public services and developed strategic public-private partnerships. 

However, despite this shift the very philosophy of open source is built around collaboration so outsourcing is not without its merit, and can provide organisations with valuable expert input. 

Here we look at the three main options public sector IT managers have when considering how to manage and implement open source development, support and hosting work. 

1. In-house 

Having the direct control and responsibility that comes with in-house provision is often cited as a reason for recruiting more internal IT. It’s often pointed out that public sector organisations have a constant stream of need and this isn’t going to change any time soon, particularly for large organisations. 

Having a dedicated in house team to call on when needed undoubtedly has its benefits. However, in-house resources can be expensive for many organisations in the public sector, especially when recruitment, training, and other costs associated with hiring and then retaining full-time people are factored in. This can prove especially expensive if services such as 24 hour support are required. 

There’s also the challenge that relying entirely on in house teams can create inflexibility and delays, regardless of the skills available. This can make it difficult to drive through major projects, such as changes to hosting arrangements or the development of online portal systems, for example. 

2. Hybrid 

Increasingly, financial pressures have led to more and more organisations looking at a hybrid approach, or co-sourcing as it is sometimes known. Using a partnership approach can optimise quality by exposing your in-house team to new skills and techniques. It can also make better use of available resources, reduce cost and improve the management of risk. It also enables organisations not comfortable with full outsourcing to re-think the way they work with external help to realise their goals. 

Bringing in outside expertise gives organisations the flexibility to scale projects up and down according to requirements quickly and easily. It’s understandable that some organisations might want to keep some resource in house but creating flexible working relationships with private sector agencies can help the public sector in the drive towards digital transformation. 

As open source technology becomes increasingly popular in the public sector, organisations can often worry that they don’t have the technical support staff needed for the investments they’ve made in open source software. That’s why dedicated 24 hour support service desk provision is being increasingly outsourced, either to complement to in-house teams or to take on full responsibility of site maintenance. 

3. Fully outsourced 

For many organisations the best way to realise the benefits of open source technology is to hand over the reins to external consultants. This doesn’t mean control is being lost completely, and the open source model certainly provides more freedom than proprietary alternatives. Instead, outsourcing with open source provides flexible access to external expertise with fresh ideas and perspectives that expose organisations to best practice and new functionality. 

One of the main challenges for IT in the public sector is a lack of in-house expertise that narrows the adoption of technology, and this is particularly true in the case of open source. By partnering with external agencies, the wider public sector can enjoy the agile, unrestricted, integration capabilities of software that breeds innovation and, by doing so, break the vicious circle of inadequate funding making efficiencies unaffordable.   

The open source future 

The open source movement remains a front of innovation. Indeed, its central idea is that companies will succeed at innovation by attracting ideas and collaboration from thousands of experts all over the world. 

External, outsourced support is more essential today than ever before in helping to improve digital transformation for public sector agencies and make the step away from proprietary systems. In fact, the latest figures show that the value of outsourcing contracts signed by UK local authorities in the first half of 2016 increased by 84% to £684.9m, with IT deals represented the largest proportion of outsourcing deals (61%). 

With these authorities focused on transforming their services to meet citizen demands and deliver new savings, the benefits of both outsourcing and open source are clear. 

Image Credit: Wright Studio / Shutterstock

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Carter is Technical Director at Ixis , a technical agency specialising in Drupal services including consultancy, development, managed hosting and support. Clients include the British Council, Thurrock Council, Westminster Council, Turley, and Haringey Council.