03 Oct 2022

CURSHAW: Mainstreaming internet era commercial approaches to deliver smart and sustainable digital public services

This guest blog post is written by Warren Smith, Associate Director with commercial lifecycle consultancy CURSHAW

The potential of digital, data and technology to improve public services, for the benefit of all within our society, has never been greater.

However, there are numerous, intricately-connected risks undermining this potential, and public procurement sits right at the heart of this complex system affecting governments at all levels - national, regional and local.

Fixing the plumbing of public procurement

I recently gave a presentation for the United Nations International Telecommunication Union (ITU), titled ‘Procurement for Smart and Sustainable Cities: Innovative mechanisms for Digital Transformation’ (which forms part of the ITU's webinar series on digital transformation for cities and communities​).

I talked about the current ‘Digital Decade’ not getting off to a good start due to the COVID-19 global health pandemic. This rapidly exposed gaps and weaknesses in governments' digital resilience, as well as further undermining governance and accountability where systems were already weakened, due to corruption, fraud and bribery - the global cost of which is estimated to be a staggering US$ 3.6 trillion every year.

Driven by urgency and necessity during the pandemic, more governments everywhere pushed towards digital, data and technology solutions and opportunities. This highlighted good, bad and ugly practices in public procurement, shining a light on inequalities and vulnerabilities, which significantly impacted both smart and sustainable approaches.

Technology procurement anti-patterns

It’s too easy to buy inappropriate technology, and to buy technology inappropriately. In his excellent “Government IT Self-Harm Playbook”, Dan Sheldon says “these are the things you really should avoid doing. Anti-patterns, if you will”.

Some examples of these kinds of technology procurement anti-patterns include when public sector delivery teams buy technology:

  • without understanding who their users are - people that have no choice but to interact with governments, such as citizens, businesses and social enterprises, charities, etc - and what their needs are, lacking empathy for their users, and having made a bunch of assumptions when developing “requirements”
  • without having first understood what already exists - digital public goods that could be reused instead of wasteful duplication, countless times over
  • that isn’t accessible or inclusive, presenting information that’s hard to read, difficult to understand, or processes that are hard to follow (legally, public sector websites and apps must meet accessibility standards, and all suppliers to government have a duty to ensure their technology and services are accessible to all, especially people with disabilities)
  • that can’t work and communicate with other technology, processes and infrastructure because it doesn’t use open standards or open interfaces
  • which is a “commercial, off the shelf” (COTS) product that’s then not used as it was intended - even small changes, customisations and workarounds to COTS software can remove most of the benefits of using it, such as reduced user experience, increased costs, harder to maintain, reduced ability to scale and adapt for future use, and restricting upgrades and removal (beware “Fake COTS” and heed the “one-day rule” as Sean Boots eminently puts it!)
  • that risks vulnerabilities in systems and data because it uses inappropriate levels of security
  • which negatively impacts sustainability throughout that technology’s lifecycle
  • then fail to work effectively and collaboratively with supplier partners, by not focussing on joint delivery of their technology projects or programmes

Not doing this - from theory to practice

Alternatives to these kinds of technology procurement anti-patterns exist throughout the whole commercial lifecycle - from planning, informing the market, evaluation and award, and managing delivery.

Steps to take need to be practical and impactful on a path towards achieving inclusive, equitable and sustainable policy outcomes, which have positive economic, social and cultural, and environmental impacts for our communities.

If you’d like to hear more about internet era commercial approaches to deliver smart and sustainable digital public services, come to the Procuring and Supplying DDaT Unconference on 12th October, organised by CURSHAW and techUK, which you can sign up to attend for free.

This article was written by Warren Smith, Associate Director with commercial lifecycle consultancy CURSHAW. 

About this author

Warren has over 25 years experience in procurement and supply chain management, across the private and public sectors, leading transformative projects to introduce new ways of thinking and working in public procurement and contracting.

He joined the UK Government Digital Service (GDS) in November 2012, and has been responsible for ensuring that the UK government’s Digital Marketplace directly supported digital, data and technology reforms. Warren led the introduction of user-centred, design-led, data-driven and open approaches to public contracting - the foundation of the step-change in procurement envisioned in the UK Government Transformation Strategy. To learn more about this author, please review his profile here. To learn more about CURSHAW, please visit their LinkedIn and Twitter.