In its action plan for the government’s IT strategy published late last week, the Cabinet Office made a point of observing that a new IT "asset and service knowledge base" for the public sector is being built by an SME (small or medium-sized enterprise). Doing so emphasised its commitment to one of the strategy’s many objectives, namely making it easier for SMEs to win government IT contracts.
The SME in question is information and communications services provider CDS. Headquartered in Leeds, the company employs around 200-people.
CDS found out about the tender for the asset and service knowledge base through Contracts Finder, the portal set up by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills’ portal in February 2011 to make procurement more transparent and accessible, and as such it provides anecdotal evidence that that the site is working.
But CDS is no stranger to bidding for government contract work, often in competition with large suppliers. The company’s roots lie in publishing documents and materials for the clients including public authorities, and it moved into IT in the 1997 when clients began asking for their content to be presented online.
According to technical director Mike Collier, CDS’ small stature can be an advantage when it comes to building web-based systems for government.
"Web systems can be overcomplicated by the larger suppliers," he says. "For example, we developed a flood warning system for the Environment Agency. That is exactly the kind of system that could have ended up in the newspapers for being late and over budget."
He also says the being a SME allows it be agile, and therefore adapt to organisational and strategic changes in government.
When CDS came across the tender for the knowledge base contract, essentially an inventory of all IT systems and service in use by central government, Collier was surprised by short delivery cycle. The tender went up in July, and the delivery deadline for the first phase was September.
"The turnaround was so fast, I was concerned whether their might already be a supplier in place," says Collier, although he adds that this would have been unusual for the government, which usually "plays with a pretty straight bat".
What won the contract for CDS, he says, was its ability to deliver quickly while still adapting to changes in scope. Collier says this derives in part for its size, but also from the modular approach it takes to developing web-based systems.
Still, the tight delivery schedule obliged the company to accelerate its development processes. "We really had to tighten up our sprints," says Collier.
One of the key technical challenges was the security requirements of the system. "The tender clearly specified that the system needed to operate to the Government Protective Marking Systems [the standard for handling classified documents]. That means going through a defined process to make sure they are not going to be open to information leakages."
Interestingly, the tender also specified that the system should be able to support semantic descriptions of IT assets and services, in order to support more accurate and automated searches in future.
"The next stage of development is to build a RDF [resource description framework] schema for government IT assets, which is really interesting work," says Collier.
"Semantic technology is fascinating, but it needs someone to take the lead," he adds. "It’s great to see the Cabinet Office is really driving this."