Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Becta Report on Managed Services

These are a big part of what is being leveraged into schools through the Building Schools for the Future programme. Schools get nice shiny new buildings and in return they pretty much have little alternative but to accept a managed ICT service for their school. So since BSF was first announced in 2003 (or earlier possibly...) it's a bit surprising that in March 2008 Becta publish research addressing how much benefit schools can realise through procurement of a managed service. (now available here)

Since it is a key part of Government policy within the one of the most expensive capital projects of the administration forgive me for being a little sceptical about the findings of this research. The research team certainly included reputable academics but also Becta representatives. The researchers contacted 400 sites running managed services collected online survey data from 79 and then 29 sites were identified to be visited. Inclusion of some sites that had considered and then rejected outsourcing or some that had outsourced and then moved back to in-house provision would have added some balance. The description of the methodology in the report does not indicate if these approaches were even considered. The final list of sites visited is as below

Site, Visits/interviews, Case studies
Primary 5 2
Special 0 0
Secondary 14 4
Academy 1 1
College 4 2
Local authority 4 3
Adult community learning 1 1
BSF 0 0
Target 30 13
Actual 29 13

(Page 16)

Secondary schools made up less than half the sites visited and they were less than a third of the case studies. It is also interesting that the research team note "In discussion with Partnerships for Schools (PfS) and Becta it was agreed that it is too early to draw any conclusions from the experiences of BSF schools beyond that published elsewhere as part of broader BSF evaluation." (Page 17) and so BSF schools were not included. This is odd given that this research will almost certainly be used to support the use of managed services within BSF and given the immaturity of the outsourced services that were examined. (See below)

The picture the research paints is of outsourcing commonly occuring because the in-house provision is poor and some event highlights the need for change. "A common picture emerged in all site visits of underinvestment in ICT prior to the introduction of the managed service. This was often compounded by the evolution of technical support roles and ICT management processes to a point where they were unclear or ill-defined. In some cases, school leaders did not fully appreciate the development needs of technical staff. There was also a tacit acknowledgment that technicians were not effectively managed with too much autonomy delegated without appropriate accountability. In many cases, a vision for the contribution of ICT to the overall mission of the school and the translation of that vision into practice was either missing or ineffective." (Page 19) To summarise the problem is too little money and poor management. What is unclear to me is how a managed service would change these underlying problems. For example how would a managed service enable a school to articulate a vision, or have more money?

I am also concerned about the immaturity of the relationships described in the report. 20 of the 42 services that the research examined were no more than 1 year old. (Page 27)

Headline findings that "the managed service does deliver improved value for money from that investment" (Page 5), dissolve into less impressive findings in the body of the report "The vast majority of sites in general felt unable to give meaningful comparative figures as the costs associated with ICT were so poorly understood before the managed service. Therefore, the evidence presented here is largely anecdotal and the conclusions that can be drawn are limited." (Page 27) Given also that the research states "Establishments considering employing a managed service need to ensure that a senior member of staff is given sufficient time and resource to oversee and champion the process ideally from procurement through to the final implementation." (Page 7) there are clearly a range of costs that might be considered within the question of 'value for money'. Sadly the report gives very little indication as to how the very tentative conclusions about this were calculated. As to headline spending "Of the 29 sites visited only 14 were willing and able to even approximate their change in financial expenditure linked to the managed service, with nine stating an increase and five no change or decrease. " (Page 108) Surely the key question here is whether this increased spending (on balance) resulted in a better service than increasing spending on the in-house support function? Making things better by spending more money on them isn't the kind of finding you'd want if you were driving through very large scale systemic change.

On page 110 the report makes the following strange claim in relation to the above "Most sites indicated a rise in expenditure. However, further (often anecdotal) exploration indicates that the majority of that spend arises from new hardware procurement and installation and is therefore not intrinsic to the managed service." Anyone with the slightest experience of ICT systems knows how much ongoing costs can be reduced by the procurement of all new and consistently built hardware. This comment along with many others in the report makes me very dubious about recommending its conclusions on outsourcing to schools I work with.

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