Asking for budget for an IT project with figures you can't explain and that double within a year is generally frowned upon in the private sector. Not so in Whitehall, it seems.
Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude told fellow MP Michael Dugher just how much the much the G-Cloud would cost, and how much it would allow the government to save by 2015: "The estimated cost for the G-Cloud programme (including the CloudStore) is £4.93m," he said. "The savings it is expected the programme will deliver are estimated at £340m."
It appears to be the first time that these figures have been used: eight months ago, the strategic implementation plan for the Government ICT Strategy slated the G-Cloud programme to generate £160m of savings by 2015 — a figure Maude has now doubled.
Could this be the most elusive of beasts — the government IT project done good? After all, £5m constitutes something akin to the small change the public sector finds down the back of the sofa. Throw in the potential to save hundreds of millions in an age of austerity, and you have something dangerously approaching a good news story for government IT.
But where will the promised £340m savings come from? Hosting? Saas? Local or central purchasing? It's a fundamental question, and one the government can't answer.
According to a response to a Freedom of Information request from the Cabinet Office requesting a breakdown of the £4.93m and £340m, the department is still working on propping up the figures: "The detailed breakdown of costs and savings is still under development," it said.
"A business case to cover staffing and ongoing development of the CloudStore is currently being developed for approval. This estimates the cost of the G-Cloud programme to be £4.93m between now and 2015," it noted.
As the figures are yet to be finalised, and will be published at some as yet unknown point in the future, the Cabinet Office is under no obligation to provide details of how it arrived at the numbers.
It did, however, provide a hint of its thinking: "The savings from delivering the programme are derived from research into the overall efficiencies gained from the adoption of cloud computing, case study in the public sector such as: Warwickshire County Council move to Google applications; Alphagov.uk [sic] single domain prototype; Relaunched government E-petitions website along with an analysis of how these models would impact existing IT spend across government," it added.
Relation to reality
If the Cabinet Office is really basing its savings figures on "how these models would impact existing IT spend across government", it can bear little relation to reality.
For example, what is the connection between the relaunched government e-petitions website and cloud computing? The petitions site is most certainly online. By any common definition, cloud it is most certainly not. The now-shut alpha.gov.uk site and Warwickshire's Google Apps work, while both have passing crossovers with the G-Cloud, don't sound like nearly solid enough, or diverse enough, a foundation from which to be extrapolating government-wide figures.
That the government could save some £100m a year through the next three years of the CloudStore is not inconceivable — that it should build its numbers on such odd precedents is.
When the coalition came to power 2010, it proclaimed its intention to revamp the way government IT projects were handled. Rather than the unwieldy beasts of Labour, subject to wildly fluctuating scope and budgets, the coalition claimed their IT projects would be marked by a tight grasp on the figures and a snappier, more agile approach to project management.
The G-Cloud, while begun under Labour, has in many ways been the poster child for that: the CloudStore was built in weeks and allows government IT buyers to chop and change between providers at speed, and provision services far quicker than previously.
It seems to be one of a tiny handful of government IT projects that has been largely met with goodwill, spared the eye-rolling and knowing smirks that historically trailed in the wake of any sufficiently high profile tech initiative.
Why, then, the need to try and dress it up with figures the government can't substantiate?
And, if it really is still working out how much the CloudStore will both cost and save, despite it going live months ago, how much has really changed in the government's approach to IT?
"There is a strong public interest in maintaining the confidence of scholars, journalists and the general public in the publication of the G-Cloud cost and savings figures. Disclosure of the information at this time would undermine the future publication of this information," the FoI said of the figures.
Quite the opposite, I would argue. Putting out numbers and then admitting you're still trying to work out what relation they bear to actuality does rather more to undermine your case.
The government intial claim of £160m of savings from the G-Cloud sounded promising. Its £340m figure sounds more like saying nothing and saying it loudly, when saying nothing at all would have served it far better.