At the end of June last year I published a report entitled ‘Does the UK Government get value for money?‘ which analysed the COI’s ‘Reporting on Progress 2009/10′ document. The publication listed key website metrics such as page views, hosting expenditure, and page requests for departmental customer facing websites, not backend applications. Using these metrics I was able to calculate figures such as the cost per request for each department and specific departmental websites in order to analyse performance.

Following this report there was a reasonable amount of press interest, it also formed the basis of my Innovation Launchpad presentations which took me to the final stage (and Downing Street) as one of ten. Now the Cabinet Office has published the 2010/2011 edition of the report it gives me the opportunity to revisit my initial findings and see whether or not if, after a year of lobbying, the UK Government’s new ICT strategy does in fact get value for money.

This report holds particular significance as in the last year the Government’s IT procurement strategy has changed greatly. With new emphasis on engaging with SMEs (25% of all Central Government contracts) and finding cost savings, particularly in ICT procurement, it will be interesting to see if there are any signs of this strategy leading to a reduction in expenditure in web hosting costs for departmental websites.


Selected sites data

In the previous report I took a sample of data from 10 websites. I chose websites that reflected the trend across all 45 sites in the report. Since my first report was published Eatwell.gov.uk has now been taken down. I will be using the same 9 websites in this report excluding Eatwell to continue to allow a comparison year-on-year. Once again in some cases the data for all websites listed in the 2010 / 2011 document has been used.


Site specific cost per request

Government Site Annual hosting and infrastructure spend Annual page requests Cost per 1000 page views
businesslink.gov.uk 2010 £4,661,000 93,502,545 £49
businesslink.gov.uk 2011 £5,616,328 93,730,707 £59.92
communities.gov.ukm 2010 £372,000 29,767,248 £12
communities.gov.uk 2011 £323,783 21,098,940 £15.35
hmrc.gov.uk 2010 £1,071,000 447,994,614 £2
hmrc.gov.uk 2011 £1,159,738 487,838,186 £2.38
mod.uk 2010 £127,000 29,111,900 £4
mod.uk 2011 £91,253 27,018,321 £3.38
nhs.uk 2010 £2,610,000 395,352,875 £6
nhs.uk 2011 £3,750,000 299,471,122 £12.52
dwp.gov.uk 2010 £197,000 72,820,907 £2
dwp.gov.uk 2011 £317,141 77,773,933 £4.08
number10.gov.uk 2010 £86,000 34,108,349 £2
number10.gov.uk 2011 £66,576 9,689,345 £6.87
dft.gov.uk 2010 £810,000 17,497,004 £46
dft.gov.uk 2011 £940,304 42,084,781 £22.34
fco.gov.uk 2010 £645,000 53,650,286 £12
fco.gov.uk 2011 £817,236 55,660,821 £14.68

The stand out results in terms of dramatic change from the above comparison are Businesslink, Communities, NHS and DFT. Businesslink with almost the same traffic levels as last year has an increased hosting expenditure by 20%, resulting in a higher cost per 1,000 page views. A redesign or new build would be expected to explain a rise like this however their was no expenditure last year for either of these services.

Interestingly NHS.uk’s hosting expenditure has also risen, this time by 43.6% from last year (£2,610,000 to £3,750,000) but it has seen a 24% fall in annual page requests. In a cloud or utility based hosting environment it would be expected that a fall in visitor numbers would see a fall in hosting expenditure. This unexplained increase in hosting expenditure is a cause for concern, especially considering the fall in page requests to the site.

The stand out success story is dft.gov.uk. There was a redesign last year and more importantly, dft was migrated to an open source application, namely WordPress. The hosting expenditure for 1,000 page views for dft.gov.uk has decreased by 51% (£46 to £22.34) but the annual page views have increased strongly by 140% (17,497,004 to 42,084,781). Generally you would expect hosting infrastructure to rise in line with page views adding costs, so clearly the migration to WordPress has resulted in much lower cost for 1,000 page views.

This could be explained by the technology requirements for hosting WordPress. Being written in PHP and MySQL means the technologies are commonly available, with no license fees, and can be hosted on a free to use and distribute Linux & Apache based system. When comparing this to Java or ASP based websites the hosting costs are considerably lower.

The annual hosting expenditure for dft.gov.uk has remained very similar (£810,000 – £940,304) even though the cost per 1,000 page views has decreased. With a move to WordPress you should expect to see costs reduce, however with an almost constant hosting expenditure annually, it would seem as though DFT are on a fixed hosting contract of some sort. If this is correct, they are not fully capitalising on the potential savings available to them. Yes, WordPress brings cost savings on a usage basis, but it is also very cheap to host compared to other apps. The annual hosting expenditure should reflect this instead of remaining almost constant when compared to last year. Yes DFT are getting value for money on last year by serving more visitors for less, but the total hosting expenditure should reflect this more granularly.

Migrating DFT to WordPress was a move I suggested in August last year! ‘Migrating DFT to WordPress’.

Comparing this years and last years sample data above it is clear to see that Businesslink’s and NHS’s hosting expenditure has risen, despite cost concerns being raised throughout last year, and that DFT.gov.uk’s cost per 1,000 visitors has dramatically reduced. There is also some consistency with Communities and HMRC in particular requiring very similar hosting expenditure year on year, (Communities £372,000 / £323,783 & HMRC £1,071,000 / £1,159,738).

I think that overall it is concerning that the majority of the sample sites have seen increased costs proportionally. Although the Government IT strategy is relatively new, clearly there has been no immediate effect if, instead of keeping costs consistent at a minimum, costs have actually risen in the majority of cases.

The greatest concern to me is the Number10.gov.uk expenditure. This site was promising, using an open source framework, however the cost per 1,000 visitors has actually increased relatively significantly (£2 to £6.87 – 243%). Yes, the total hosting & infrastructure expenditure has reduced, however the cost of actual page views, and therefore processing / request time, has risen sharply. Clearly the site is not being hosted on a utility based system allowing Number10 to benefit fully from running on an application such as WordPress. As a flagship next generation site I believe this rise of expenditure should be addressed immediately. Hopefully this year the G-Cloud project, and our involvement, will begin to solve these problems.


Average costs

The following figures are a comparison of the average cost for 1,000 and for a single page view across all the sample sites that received data from each report. Using the average across the sample gives a clear indication whether or not the Government’s strategy to reduce IT expenditure is, overall, working to reduce costs.

2009 / 2010 Reporting on Progress Data
Average cost per page request £0.03
Average cost for 1,000 page requests £27.78
2010 / 2011 Reporting on Progress Data
Average cost per page request £0.02
Average cost for 1,000 page requests £23.63

The outcome is positive with a 15% reduction in the cost per 1,000 page requests across all website data provided in these reports. This is clearly a win for Central Government, particularly with the new IT procurement strategy I mentioned above.


Conclusion

I would like to think we can look forward to another set of positive results based on the analysis next year, especially with Chris Chant and his team’s G-Cloud efforts.

I think the attitude towards development and web hosting described in James Stewart’s blog on the Government Digital Service site is greatly encouraging, and suggests that the attitude in Central Government towards SIs and relationships with Incumbent Suppliers truly is changing. James writes..

Cloud hosting options are continuing to develop rapidly, and so are the requirements for the GOV.UK platform. As parts of our platform stabilise we may well find that we want a hybrid hosting environment, where some aspects live somewhere like AWS and others are hosted on other cloud platforms or even on traditional dedicated hardware.

We’re primarily focused on working out what will provide value now rather than being too preoccupied with potential future scenarios, but we have been careful to follow our own rules and not tie ourselves too tightly to any one hosting platform.

http://digital.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/2012/01/24/hosting-the-beta-of-gov-uk/

I hope that next year I can write again about an improvement in the results. I would like to see firstly, a greater adoption of open source applications for website redesigns, especially following the success of dft.gov.uk. Secondly, more engagement with SMEs who will often prove their ability to produce savings when dealing with large private entities. Finally, the rapid adoption of the G-Cloud programme, pan-Government, and success stories based on the G-Cloud suppliers service offerings.

Joe Gardiner Head of Product

Joe is the Head of Product for CatN. He oversees product development, customer engagement and commercial activities. You can find him on Google Plus.