Michael Cross in the Technology Guardian asked back in AprilIs It Really A Good Time To Be Asking For More IT Money?” Michael poked fun at the notion that “as the chancellor announces the largest peacetime deficit in history, the IT industry is lining up to say what the government really needs to do is spend more taxpayers’ money on computers“. His blunt response: “Dream on“.

He is, of course, correct to remind us that public sector funding is in decline and this is likely to impact grandiose plans for large-scale IT developments. Indeed, as I pointed out recently, we have already seen the recent demise of the Hero gateway to UK higher educational institutions.

Michael Cross’s suggestion is to “freeze budgets at just those needed to keep existing big systems …  ticking over“. He goes on to propose that “Any new programmes would have to be achieved with Gmail, Flickr, and whatever other free stuff can be found on the web. Preferably running on public employees’ own laptops and mobile phones” and points out that “the market research firm Gartner is peddling a similar line, under the heading ‘The future of government is no government‘”.

A ridiculous notion? Maybe, but consider the alternatives which might include a lack of services and innovation or a move towards centralised solutions. And let’s be honest about the dangers of the centralised solutions. I’ve heard people talk about ideas floating in government circles that the Open University should be the provided of e-learning resources for the high education sector – a suggestion which Open University e-learning staff I know are happy to debunk.

And what of he wider public sector service? A tweet from Joss Win pointed out that it cost:

£168,000 to out-source the Treasury’s website last year?! (only 4 visits/minute) http://bit.ly/zndCW Surely this deserves full disclosure?

which led to suggestions from other Twitters that they would be happy to deliver Web pages on a memory stick transported on a Rolls-Royce if funding of that scale was available :-) And the response given in Hansard went on to add that “Staff costs are not included as they could only be established at disproportionate cost“.

Now I’m not suggesting that we should necessarily or in all cases  require that “new programmes would have to be achieved with Gmail, Flickr, and whatever other free stuff can be found on the web” (or, as Tony Hirst describes this “Appropriating Technology“).  But these are possibilities which should be treated on par with in-house development work, just as open source software solutions should be evaluated along side proprietary solutions for public sector procurement exercises. And yes, the risks of such out-sourcing to such Web 2.0 companies should be included in any procurement exercises.

But let’s also ensure that development work outsourced in more conventional ways is also open to public scrutiny. Otherwise we may find that figures such as £168,000 of the public’s  money to outsource hosting or development to companies which have close links with public sector bodies is being wasted. As Joss suggests, this deserves full disclosure! (Oh, and if you don’t think that public sector should be reliant on commerical services, remember that the U.S. Government Ask[ed] Twitter to Stay Up for #IranElection Crisis) .