For many years, IT projects have been funded by capex (capital expenditure). Whatever came out of the project – servers, software licences, code, automation tools etc – sat on the balance sheet and was depreciated over an agreed period. Usually, for software, it was thought to be too long a period, but given that many of our systems are still working 20, 30 or even 40 years after launch, and so long since depreciated to zero, we clearly under-estimated the longevity of code. Similarly, we probably over-estimated the life of laptops and mobile phones where 5-7 years depreciation is common, but they have quickly become replaceable after 2 or maybe 3 years.
With the move to cloud, the entire infrastructure base switch from capex to opex – that is, it’s funded out of day to day expenses and nothing is held on the balance sheet. Millions of pounds of servers (and all the switches, routers and other kit associated with them) left the balance sheet. Governments tend to be capital rich – there are few departments who complain about not having enough capex. Capex buys actual things – in IT terms, servers with flashing lights and spinning disks that can be looked at, making the spend tangible (hence the use of tangible and intangible assets for different kinds of IT assets).
This has created a challenge for some departments who want to spend their capital, but also want to move to the cloud. There was a similar challenge early in the cloud era when VAT was not recoverable, putting further pressure on strained opex budgets.
I’m seeing a change though, now, where even software development is run as an opex project – on the basis that the code is expected to turn over rapidly and be replaced through an iterative agile approach. If a project goes wrong – at a micro or macro level – there’s no write-off (which can be important to some). At the same time, treating everything as opex means that, in some cases, there’s a building soon to be legacy code base (becuase it’s a fallacy to think that this code is iterated and replaced regularly) that is going unmaintained, meaning that there’s ever more spaghetti code that isn’t being looked at or tweaked. Knowledge of that code base is held by a smaller and smaller set of people … and changes to it become more difficult as a result.
It’s a strange move – one that perhaps implies that there is less scrutiny over opex spend, or that the systems being built will not be in use for the long term and so don’t quite count as assets. But IT systems have a habit of surprising us and sticking around for far longer than expected – ask the developers, if you can find them, of the big systems that pay benefits, collect tax, monitor imports, check passports at border etc what the expected life of their system was when they built it and the answer will never (ever) be “oh, decades.”
That’s not to say that there isn’t a case for classifying some IT spend as opex. If you are a fast moving startup building products for a new market and striving to reach product/market fit, you might be crazy to think that it was worth having IT on the balance sheet. If you know that you are building a prototype and will throw it away in a few weeks or months, it would, again, be crazy to capitalise it. If you’re doing R&D work and you’re not sure what will come out of it, you might well classify it as opex initially and revisit later to see if assets were created and then re-classify it.
I suspect that the tensions between capex and opex in government still have more room to play out