• Q&A
  • November 11, 2018
  • 12 minutes
  • 0

The UK’s “govtech minister” is opening government to a new kind of business

Oliver Dowden on how to make the promise of digital transformation a reality

“The easy thing is make the promises, the harder thing is to legislate for it, but the really tricky thing is to actually deliver.” So says Oliver Dowden MP, whose job, since his appointment as the UK’s minister for implementation in January 2018, has been taking care of the tricky thing.

Sitting within the UK government’s Cabinet Office, Dowden is responsible for the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) — the in-house team of digital specialists working to bring new technologies and ways of working to British bureaucracy.

It’s also up to Dowden to build bridges to the tech sector. Too often, small, innovative companies are locked out of government contracts, through complex and unwieldy procurement processes, or because the problems they can work to fix aren’t clearly understood.

Getting more of these govtech firms working with departments and helping solve their challenges is a key part of Dowden’s job. With the digital marketplace, a portal through which tech firms can access and apply for government contracts, and the GovTech catalyst, a competition where companies compete to access funding for clearly defined challenges from across government, the UK has already begun to open itself up to new ways of doing business. It’s having an effect — in August 2018 Dowden announced that since 2012, almost half of public sector spend on digital, data and technology services had been spent with small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs).

Apolitical spoke with Dowden ahead of an appearance at the world’s first govtech summit in France next week.

What’s the purpose of a Minister for Implementation?

It’s [about] looking at areas where we’re having challenges with delivery and trying to identify what the problems are and looking at ways of unblocking them.

We have established cross-government functional teams. There’s GDS which looks across government at digital innovation, transformation, setting standards, training and so on. We have a cross-government government commercial function that looks at setting standards for how we procure from the private sector, a government property function that looks at how we manage our estate and we now have a government cyber function that looks at the national cyber security sector.

What I can do as the minister is provide leadership for those organisations — to present the challenge, but also a controlled process. We act as a gateway, whether for property relocations, for approval of government procurements or for developing a government digital strategy.

I’ve seen in two respects that this approach works very well. One, no matter what the discussion is about how we came to the situation that we did with [collapsed outsourcing company] Carillion, in terms of our response, we’ve actually ensured a seamless delivery of public services — that wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the functions.

Similarly, as we approach the challenges around Brexit, being able to take an overview of all of the government’s commercial capacity or the government’s digital capacity helps you better manage those cross-cutting challenges.

The UK government has worked to reform procurement, seeking to contract small, innovative tech companies rather than just the same old big IT providers. How have practices changed at the day-to-day level?

I think the digital marketplace is a fantastic example of how we can use SMEs. Under those frameworks almost half of the procurement has gone to SMEs; that’s a great example of something that’s working well.

I think the govtech fund is a great innovator. We look at challenges that the government is unable to meet, for example identifying still Daesh imagery, and have a competition to see what tech firms can address those challenges.

“If businesses can succeed with the UK government, that opens doors across the rest of the world”

But at the moment govtech [procurement] is lots of little pinpricks. The digital marketplace is necessarily confined to the things the digital marketplace does — cloud [technology], skills and so on.

As we develop the government innovation strategy I’ll look to build on those things, to continue to simplify procurement to make it easy for SMEs to engage, particularly at the pre-procurement stage,as we set [it] up. That’s certainly an idea that’s under active consideration.

We [also] need to make sure that we’re benchmarking what we do against the best practice in government, but also against what is being done in the private sector — the revolution in people’s experience of consuming, whether it’s how the hotel market’s been transformed by airbnb or uber with transport and amazon with shopping, and so on. We can’t allow a huge gap to open up.

If we get this right we can ensure that we have an enhanced user experience at a lower cost, that helps to support the wider tech sector. Govtech is an area where we have real strength: if businesses can succeed with the UK government, that opens doors across the rest of the world.

The GovTech Catalyst challenge fund, £20million ($26million) over three years, is a small amount of money in comparison to some government contracts. Can you expect much to change?

I think it’s a start. If you take £20million in the context of overall government spending, clearly it’s a small amount. But it has enabled us to tap the creativity and the dynamism of the tech sector, and to look at challenges from across government.

One of the challenges is how we can move from the pinprick of very narrow things to the wider challenge of transforming the citizen’s experience of government. Govtech provides a good model as we move along that path.

How do you make sure that tech businesses from across the UK’s regions can access government contracts? With many government departments based in London, are you working to help SMEs and tech companies outside the capital?

Clearly there’s a big cluster in the capital, but you can increasingly see that elsewhere. Govtech is really not confined to businesses in London and the South East. I think as we move more towards a hub model for government properties, where we have hubs in different regional cities, there’s potential to engage with different businesses locally.

The challenge for me is to make sure that when tech companies are bidding for government business, particularly small ones, we level the playing field, and we make it as easy as possible. That’s going to benefit all parts of the UK.

GDS is now an established part of government. How do you maintain its dynamism?

When we started, Francis Maude [former Cabinet Office minister who helped to set up GDS] rightly had to have a hard push to get government departments to use GDS. I think over time we’ve moved the model more towards cooperation with departments, where GDS is demonstrating what it can bring. [That’s] a number of things.

First of all of skills, both training through the DDAT academy [a GDS run scheme to teach public servants from other departments digital, data and technology skills], and also getting the skills in: helping to identify senior talent.

“Our core concern is not the technology, it’s about enhancing the citizen’s experience of government”

Secondly, we can provide a verification and control mechanism for government digital contracts to make sure we’re actually getting value, and also help departments structure major digital transformations.

It’s also trying to bring together all of government. This is what the emerging technology strategy is all about. All government departments are thinking how they can apply AI, or what the role of blockchain might be.

Rather than the government sticking its finger in here and saying that we like that shiny new technology, what we’re trying to do is have a coherent approach, where we understand what the best practice is, help government departments to adopt it in a sensible and pragmatic way. Our core concern is not the particular type of technology, it’s about enhancing the citizen’s experience of government.

One of your ministerial duties is human resources. Is it still difficult to recruit tech talent into government, or do people in the tech sector now see government as a natural place to work?

I hope they do. I think actually the advantage of having a GDS rather than a departmental focus is that people who join feel that they are joining a tech function, not a department. It makes the move from the private sector to the public sector easier.

But it also helps the other way; it means that people with development expertise in GDS can find rich opportunities in the private sector. Particularly in these very fast moving areas, it’s vital that people have private sector experience, but also have public sector experience of application.

Because your primary role is a specialist rather than a departmental civil servant, it makes that flow much easier. — Anoush Darabi

(Picture credit: Cabinet Office)

 

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