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Stepping up to GovTech

Source: PSE June/July 2018

Malcolm Harbour CBE, chair of the LGA working group on innovation in public procurement, gives us an update on the progress of the GovTech Catalyst challenges, and explains how successful projects will be rolled out.

My last article in PSE gave details of the GovTech Catalyst, which engages digital innovators to increase productivity and improve service quality in delivering public services. It is being organised by the Government Digital Service (GDS), with funding from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BEIS) of up to £20m over three years. All public bodies are eligible to apply, including local and mayoral authorities.

The first bidding round opened in early 2018 and closed on 19 February – a very tight deadline. It was very encouraging that 11 local authority proposals were among more than 50 submitted from across government.

After a review by a cross-Whitehall panel, the shortlist was submitted to ministers. At a GDS event on 10 May, the first five successful challenges were announced by minister Oliver Dowden to the 600 delegates. Local authorities demonstrated their appetite for innovative procurement and the quality of their ideas by submitting three of the winning bids.

The successful local authority challenges show the wide scope for innovative thinking:

  • Tackling loneliness and rural isolation (opening July) submitted by Monmouthshire Council. It noted: “Rural transport provision can sometimes be weak, compounding the problem of isolation. Car-share initiatives are already underway, but a technological solution, identifying vehicles with spare capacity, designed with the elderly in mind, could support rural economies and reduce health and social problems. We also invite innovative solutions to tackle loneliness more generally.”
  • Cutting traffic congestion (opening August), submitted by the Royal Borough of Greenwich and the Department for Transport. This seeks “better ways of collecting and using data, but also innovative interventions to deal with live traffic issues and improvements in long-term planning.”
  • Deploying smart sensors on council vehicles (opening September) proposed jointly by the councils of Durham and Blaenau Gwent. Their submission notes that by “using smart sensors, our service vehicles could photograph potholes, measure air quality, identify fly-tipping and look at parking capacity, all in real time. They could actively improve some of the services that matter most for people’s quality of life.”

The selected GovTech projects will be rolled out under the pre-commercial procurement process, used by the Innovate UK Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI). Regular readers of these articles may recall that this was one of the procurement tools recommended in the LGA report, which drew attention to model contracts and other information available from Innovate UK as a resource for local authorities. Innovate UK will work closely with the challenge winners throughout the programme.

To ensure that Innovate UK expertise is available, the challenges will be launched at monthly intervals and promoted across the technology sector. Small companies and inventors will be encouraged to apply. In the first phase, ‘Discovery,’ contractors will be invited to submit their proposed ideas that meet the challenge requirements. The most promising, which could engage up to five competing firms, will be offered funding (up to £50,000) to prove their feasibility. In the second phase, ‘Alpha,’ one or two providers could then be awarded up to £500,000 to turn their idea into a functioning solution.

The success of local government in this first GovTech round should be a big motivation to council leaders and procurement teams to launch more challenging and innovative procurements. It is essential that GovTech projects encourage information sharing  and feed the development of best practice, extending digital solutions to all aspects of procurement.

The BEIS needs to take a much wider view of the innovative potential of procurement tools, which can be applied to less ambitious and simpler projects than those driven by SBRI. The chairmen of three Commons select committees engaged with economic competitiveness have already written a joint letter to the chancellor asking for SBRI to be given additional funding to take on a wide range of projects.

GovTech is the prominent and well-promoted programme that could open the eyes of policymakers across the public sector to the untapped power of innovative procurement.


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