Public Sector Focus

26.06.19

techUK's Henry Rex: Fostering industry and government collaboration

Efforts to improve public sector access to the capabilities and expertise contained within the SME community are continuing at pace. Henry Rex, head of public sector/central government programmes at techUK, discusses the difficulties for businesses.

During a time of budgetary constraint for the public sector, when Brexit uncertainty is causing political deadlock and taking up large chunks of departmental resources, it has never been more important for the government to work closely with the tech community to harness the tools and skills needed to deliver cutting edge services.

Collaboration brings in new ideas, drives innovation, and creates space for better ways of working. It acts as a force multiplier, where the parties are greater than the sum of their parts. And thus, it can help organisations tackle significant challenges.

Doubtless the coming years will bring some significant challenges for the UK’s public sector, striving to deliver more value for money while meeting the needs of an ageing population. And, crucially, a more demanding population - as citizens become ever more consumer-like in our expectations of public services.

READ MORE: New marketplace improves public sector access to latest tech

READ MORE: Government SME procurement is improving but needs more focus – NAO

Entire business models are built on the idea of delivery at the touch of a button. And as advances in the digital economy march on and on, the public sector must prepare itself for the high level of service and convenience that citizens will expect when accessing various public services. This will almost certainly have to be done within relative budgetary constraints. It is probably safe to assume that this year’s Spending Review will not lead to an overwhelming increase in departmental resources, so we must accelerate the transformation of public services through the smart application of digital technology.

So, the expectation is to provide seamless end-to-end services, which are modern, affordable, and deliver value for citizens. At techUK we try to help address this by driving closer collaboration between the public sector and the tech innovators to ensure that solutions to government challenges are practical, deliverable and informed by leading industry thinking.

A major strand of this work consists of efforts to help improve public sector access to the capabilities and expertise contained within the SME community. UK tech SMEs can be a hive of innovation, and the government has set itself the target of spending one pound in every three with small or mid-sized companies.

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Every year we undertake a survey of SME tech suppliers to the public sector, to explore which mechanisms are working well for them and identify the barriers that still need to be overcome. A few weeks ago, we published the results of our annual Govtech SME Survey which revealed some interesting findings.

Our research found that some efforts over recent years to improve SME access to the sector have indeed appeared to work, particularly the Digital Marketplace, with 63% of respondents saying that the G-Cloud framework has helped SMEs access the public sector market. On the whole, however, respondents felt not enough progress has been made.

Ultimately, respondents feel that government is still a disproportionality difficult customer to deal with. 68% felt the government has not acted effectively on its commitment to helping small businesses break into the public sector market. Indeed, it seems that SMEs are less confident that the situation will improve significantly in the short-term, with only 37% of respondents saying they felt the government’s 33% SME target is achievable in the next five years, down from 49% in the same survey last year, which is particularly disappointing.

READ MORE: Cloud communications: making the case for investment in cost-saving technology

The overall picture from these results is pretty clear: there is still a great deal to be done to ensure government can access the range of capabilities that Govtech SMEs can bring. The lack of pre-procurement industry engagement, a sub-optimal understanding of how smaller businesses can address public sector needs, and the difficulty in sharing good practice were all highlighted as areas that, if remedied, could make a real difference to SMEs.

Clearly there is no silver bullet here. If there were one, it would have been used long ago. But the public sector needs to harness the expertise and innovation that SMEs can bring in order to ensure that public service delivery keeps pace with demand and expectations. And undertaking early and meaningful market engagement, bringing in a range of different suppliers, would be a straightforward step to make some progress.

Another way to broaden industry/government collaboration is TechConnect: an initiative we launched in partnership with the Government Digital Service and HMRC, bringing together early career professionals to work together to drive innovation in public services.

READ MORE: County launches Growth Hub to drive SME innovation

The programme, sponsored by Jacky Wright (CDIO, HMRC) and the GDS, brought together 38 early professionals, half from the Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) Fast Stream and half from tech companies. The delegates were divided into seven cohorts, and over the 12-week programme they worked to identify and design digital solutions for public sector challenges.

Over the course of 12 weeks the cohorts visited a range of tech companies, large and small, to see live demos of innovation happening in the private sector that could be used to inform their solutions. Each cohort was allocated two mentors, one from government and one from industry, to provide advice and guidance as the teams devised their problem statements and developed solutions.

Jacky summarised the aspirations of the initiative perfectly when she launched the programme and said: “I hope this programme will give private sector participants insight into how we work in government, the sheer scale of what we do, and how their expertise and experience can help make a real difference for the whole country.

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She added: “For our civil service colleagues, I hope this will give them an appreciation of how innovation can work in real time in a commercial, agile environment… I am hoping – and expecting – that TechConnect will showcase how public and private sectors working closely together can innovate at speed and bring technological and business ideas that will truly help transform government.”

The culmination of the programme was a finale day hosted at techUK where each cohort pitched their solution to a panel of judges. The judging panel consisted of Jacky Wright, CDIO, HMRC; Oliver Lewis, deputy director for DDaT, Government Digital Service; Penny Williams, vice chair of techUK’s Public Services Board; and Zoe Cunningham, techUK deputy president.

Two teams came up with such innovative solutions, and presented so well, that the judges could not pick between them and awarded them both the top prize. Team Tomlinson, which devised a secure citizen-government transaction system, and Independence Pay, which produced a demo for online PIP application processing. Alongside the prestige that comes with winning the first ever TechConnect contest, as part of their prize the victorious cohorts will soon be pitching their solutions to civil servants at the highest level.

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