The UK government wants to reload the Matrix. But is there a glitch?

UK Government Matrix reload connected

To borrow a line from the Matrix everyone knows (you know, the Keanu Reeves classic), “choice, the problem is choice.” According to the architects of the shared services cluster strategy for the UK government, this also applies to the civil service and its lack of interoperability. It’s a problem for which the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) thinks it has a solution for, going by the name of the Matrix.

Speaking to a Public Accounts Committee in January this year about the proposed clusters, specifically the Matrix one, Nathan Moores, the shared services strategy director at the Cabinet Office, said that “departments have traditionally had their own view on how they would like to do HR, finance and commercial, so the big step change is to get the departments to work as clusters.”

Moores is going to have his work cut out. Eight central government departments running unconnected ERP, HR and finance systems will hope to be brought under one SaaS roof. These departments range across HM Treasury, the Department for Education, BEIS and more. Half are already using Cloud technology; half aren’t.

As Moores embarks on what is called in the tender “a bundled procurement” for back-office IT services for Matrix, anyone could be forgiven if they are experiencing a moment of déjà vu. Government IT projects have poor form. As a National Audit Office (NAO) report on 25 years of government IT projects revealed a couple of years ago, “there is a gap between what government intends to achieve and what it delivers to citizens and service users, which wastes taxpayers’ money and delays improvements in public services.”

There’s no need to reel off a list here and shout ‘Emergency Services Network’ at the top of our voices. Everyone knows the track record but this one, apparently, is going to be different. It’s actually promising to save money, for starters – £2bn against a £900m investment.

Alex Chisholm, chief operating officer for the Civil Service and permanent secretary for the Cabinet Office, described Matrix to the committee as being “like a Rubik’s Cube,” adding that it is “trying to satisfy multiple criteria of scale, process similarity and a degree of platform compatibility, and also where you are in terms of your maturity and your degree of change, as to whether or not you are in a cloud-based system.”

Chisholm said he had read past NAO reports, noting a common theme in previous government IT projects has been “excessive customizations, moving away from the standards.” This, he added, “is what added to the costs and made it difficult to move to the shared-services approach,” something which he says will not happen with Matrix.

On the surface, it makes a lot of sense. As David Myers, a former director of shared services at the Cabinet Office and now CIO at Lancaster University tells ERP Today; in principle “it’s got to be sensible to aggregate because it allows for shared data-driven decision making, which is always more difficult with disparate architecture.”

And who would argue with government departments actually saving public money? Deeper within though, it is extremely complex, and as both Moores and Chisholm are no doubt aware, a huge challenge at delivering on promises within budget. Would it be a government IT project-first?

Steve Ingram, a director of consulting at Deloitte UK, compares the proposed consolidation of IT services as akin to working on a global conglomerate and trying to standardize systems across multiple acquisitions, mergers and regions (EMEA, Americas and Asia Pacific) in one major project.

“Getting agreement is only the first stage, and then actually doing it will be another,” he says. “Although they have split the government departments into ‘fast movers’ and ‘slower followers’, these terms are probably relative and they are all at different paces, which are variations on glacial pace.”

The Matrix tender is looking to purchase Cloud-based capabilities, including SaaS ERP and “associated technologies,” plus integration and change management services. Most would agree that this is the way to go, as it creates scalability and, potentially, an interoperable space for data sharing. It fits with Moore’s desire to “set standards” across the cluster, something which Jaco Vermeulen, CTO of BML Digital recommends.

“The IT system configuration and set-up is the easy part if it is a proper SaaS platform using standard processes,” he says. “Limit implementation to configuration, and do not build bespoke functions. The IT systems implementation and integration should not be done independently of the operational change coming with establishing a shared service center; in fact, the new operating model should lead the technology and IT implementation.”

The procurement process is currently underway, but with strict NDAs in place, it’s unlikely we’ll get a peep at everyone in the running just yet. Speculatively, there’s an array of vendors that could be jostling for a bigger slice, with Oracle, SAP, Microsoft, Unit4 and Workday already in place, to name a few, according to a shared services strategy report. Meanwhile, in late December, BEIS signed a £6.5m two-year deal with the consultancy Veran Performance, which specializes in HR, finance, payroll and procurement transformation. What advantage it has over any of the Big Four would be interesting to know.

With just one SaaS ERP system set to rule the roost, there’s no doubt some vendors will find themselves with a smaller part to play than they would have liked, and that’s before we consider the potential system integrator services also throwing their hats in the ring.

Nick Jewell, technology evangelist of ERP data analytics firm Incorta, warns that a key challenge for Matrix is how to maintain operational effectiveness during the transformation itself, especially when dealing with disparate technologies and a multitude of vendors of varying maturity.

“Existing data infrastructures and reporting will have to be rebuilt as part of the migration,” says Jewell, “especially so if the UK government embraces a full migration to the Cloud as part of this strategy. These existing data pipelines are already expensive, time-consuming investments to maintain, and will require funding and technical resources above-and-beyond the main ERP consolidation.”

According to Chris Gorton, SVP and MD EMEA at data management software firm Syniti, it will be the data integration and delivery that will be really testing, given the legacy systems and data formats across eight different departments. He warns against “lifting and shifting data sets,” as a shortcut, as well as preparing for the people challenge, meaning data culture.

To make things worse, Moores and Chisholm have been thrown a curveball. Last week Prime Minister Rishi Sunak created four new government departments. While it won’t make their work of unpacking processes and sub-processes across each department redundant, it will complicate things. Not that the civil servants are about to cut their losses and wake up in bed, none the wiser. They’re committed and have already taken the red pill – but who knows how far into the Matrix this rabbit hole goes?