We need bold and better GovTech – not ‘Big IT’

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Business Reporter: Scott Logic

The 2010s saw a cultural shift in the UK public sector to embrace 21st-century approaches to commissioning and delivering digital public services. However, it feels like we’ve taken our foot off the pedal in the 2020s.

We’ve seen a return to the large-scale technology procurement approach that the Public Administration Select Committee reported on in 2011’s Government and IT — “a recipe for rip-offs”: time for a new approach. IT contracts are being awarded to a few large enterprises and there is less engagement with smaller and mid-size businesses that can provide a broader range of expertise and experience. Fast-forward to 2024, and the Eighth Annual Report of the Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts notes that “Government must find cost-effective ways to upgrade its IT systems, especially considering the high human and monetary cost of errors.”

High human cost, indeed; the Post Office–Horizon scandal is a stark warning to all. What we build, how we build it, and who builds it are important decisions with real-world consequences.

When we outsource our national digital public infrastructure by procuring from big IT consultancies, we create the conditions for the next Horizon. Moreover, we will fail to realise the full potential for digital public service transformation.

So, what should we do about it?

1. Focus on value delivered

While there is value in ensuring a fair market price for services engaged, we should equally focus on ensuring that we deliver maximum value for any cost incurred.

Procuring a large project from a ’cheap vendor’ surrenders control over the outcome. Money isn’t saved by hiring less expensive, less capable people if the service delivered is unfit for purpose, takes longer to build and costs more to operate.

2. Empower leaders who focus on people, not process

I have so much respect for the digital and technical folk who are working hard to transform services. However, there are not enough of them, and we have recently seen a high level of churn in civil service leadership with the corresponding loss of institutional expertise. This was called out in a recent report assessing digital transformation in government.

People build technology and multidisciplinary teams are the unit of delivery. Civil servants must have skin in the game rather than being tasked with providing remote governance of third-party delivery. Government departments must continue to select experienced service owners and give them control over scope, spending and outcomes. Empower them to build value-focused, multidisciplinary teams with an ethos of “Make it work, don’t just get it done”.

3. Widen the supplier base

Government must commit to widening the supplier base by reducing the size of contracts and supporting a simple, open and fair procurement process that identifies the right partners, with the right skills, for the right projects. It must commit to common standards and enforce their adoption, ensuring that digital investments prioritise interoperability, incentivise reuse and commoditise where possible. Collaboration between suppliers should be encouraged.

These changes would empower civil servants to improve the quality of outcomes and increase service resiliency, supported by an ecosystem of smaller suppliers reviewing each other’s work. Otherwise, there’s the risk of large suppliers evading scrutiny.

4. Think bolder and better, not bigger

Tapping into a wider market and engaging with focused contracting doesn’t have to mean smaller-scale ambition. By thinking bigger and bolder, and working with amazing UK talent, departments can harness innovation to address complex challenges – my colleague Oliver Cronk describes key foundations for innovation in the video on this page.

Bold investments in technology position governments as pioneers, improve citizen services, and drive long-term prosperity for all.

The best way to build good services is to start small and iterate

Those words aren’t mine. I’m quoting from the Government Design Principles, first published in 2012, providing the basis for which the UK developed world-leading digital public services. They are as true today as ever and underpin the case I have made here. You don’t build good services by ceding control of large-scale delivery to a few big companies. You build good services by identifying user needs and starting small, shaping services iteratively with a relentless focus on the value to be delivered.

The principles also say: “Make things open: it makes things better”. However, awarding control of large-scale delivery to big consultancies reduces transparency, weakens governance and increases the risk of supplier lock-in. There is a clear alternative that would foster a better-skilled civil service capable of managing more resilient services: open up procurement and work with a wider range of suppliers on smaller projects in multidisciplinary teams. This is the way to deliver more value to citizens, return the UK’s digital government services to world-leading status, and avoid another Horizon.

Learn how Scott Logic helps organisations harness technology to deliver value.

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