In this blog, Rob Anderson, Principal Analyst for Central Government in the GlobalData Public Sector team suggests that the government needs to review how it enables more innovation, whilst fostering the GovTech eco-system and developing the right culture for innovation to flourish.
Innovation, the lifeblood of the technology sector, facilitates the transformation of processes and business models through techniques such as automation. However, adoption of innovative technologies varies with buyers’ appetite for risk, and UK Government has historically been seen as a laggard in this regard.
In establishing the Government Digital Service, the Cabinet Office sought to change that archetypal view of public service procurement. In addition to the revolution in service development through agile methodologies, it partnered the Crown Commercial Service (then GPS) in launching G-Cloud and subsequently the Digital Marketplace. This recognised that a quicker, more dynamic route to market would better support the growing desire for cloud and other emerging technologies.
These frameworks were pivotal in opening up the market and stimulating the GovTech community, particularly for local SME businesses. Yet recently progress has been stalling. With the distractions of Brexit and austerity, spending on new technologies has slowed and with it the growth of innovative solutions providers. Established SI-type contractors are returning to favour, and although innovation is delivered by these corporate giants too, the fledging local tech economy is suffering most.
UK Public Sector needs to kick-on to satisfy the voracious demands of the 21st century citizen for always-on, universally accessible, joined-up public services. The recent Government Technology Innovation Strategy attempts to address this, outlining how government can gain most benefit from the rich seam of available solutions through focusing on people, processes, and data and technology.
With regards to people, the reskilling of public servants with relevant and up-to-date knowledge of technology can be a long, arduous journey. Public bodies must acknowledge they will often need to partner with suppliers to build capability, rather than letting short-term contracts delivering discrete outcomes. This education must also extend to users and particularly buyers, who need to buy-in to the importance of effecting change through innovative technology.
Our industry is well versed in the benefits that technology innovation offers; our public sector clients often less so. Nonetheless, examples of good practice exist across government, several referenced in the new strategy. Yet the message must become more pervasive to drive change. Data is somewhat trickier to address—firstly due to the sheer volume of both public and personal information held in multiple copies in different formats on disparate systems. Secondly, successive administrations have dealt with the thorny issues of digital identity and data security in a muddled and inept way, without any authoritative central mandate. Our problems are not unique though; the UK government must learn from some of the many examples of success in other countries and other market sectors.
The process element probably requires the greatest shift in emphasis. A ‘Not Invented Here’ and siloed approach to transformation through innovation persists. GDS should have been a great success in articulating a coherent and consistent approach to delivering digital services. Its failure to follow through is more to do with diminishing political will in the Cabinet after Francis Maude’s departure than through any fault of its own. Moreover, the strength of individual departmental fiefdoms to continue on solo but often parallel paths buoyed by the archaic funding structures of HM Treasury has resulted in limited progress.
For innovation to provide a springboard for better public services fit for today, government cannot rest on its laurels. The 2019 Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) shows the UK slipping down the league table for digital services. Whilst the Innovation Strategy has opened a discussion, there has to be greater collaboration and cooperation both within its own structures and externally with experts from the tech sector. The rhetoric on innovation must be matched by increased investment.
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