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Minister says tech innovation needs scope for failure


Mark Say Managing Editor

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Minister for Implementation Oliver Dowden has said it’s “OK to fail” in trying new technologies for government services.

Dowden, whose brief inside the Cabinet Office includes oversight of the Government Digital Service, made the statement in a GDS podcast dealing with the experience of his first year in the post.

Talking about the technology innovation strategy on which GDS is currently working, he said one of the priorities is to highlight the best of what government is doing with emerging technologies and how it can be applied elsewhere.

“It links into other areas, such as how we procure those things and get the best innovation in the private sector,” he said. “And it goes to the culture of government, so that people feel empowered to take proportionate risks.

“You’re not going to get innovation without taking risks and sometimes it will go wrong. It’s OK to fail if you’re trying to drive that innovation.”

More competitions

Dowden also highlighted the importance of the GovTech Catalyst challenges, through which Innovate UK is gradually distributing £20 million to support the development of new digital solutions for public services with a series of competitions. He hinted that this approach could become a regular fixture for the future.

“We’ve had three rounds of challenges for using emerging technologies, and it has softened the barrier between government and the private sector through procurement,” he said.

“Too often government goes to market with a very prescriptive solution and a rigid procurement process. Having a competition with different stages in which people pitch in with what the solution might look like is what we do with GovTech.

“It forms part of a pattern I hope we can add to in which we have the opportunity for soft engagement in procurement before it actually happens. We can get the ideas from the private sector as to what we are after.”

Three priorities

Late last year GDS pointed to three priorities for the innovation strategy: a need to build capability and an innovation culture among civil servants; procurement processes that make it easier for start-ups to work with government; and dealing with issues around combining legacy infrastructure with new technology.

Among the other priorities to emerge from the podcast were the need to improve the accessibility of government data while helping policy makers to better understand its potential, and for GDS to focus on outputs rather than government processes in how services are presented to the public. Dowden cited the example people being able to find out what to do by searching with simple questions such as ‘Learn to drive’ and ‘Start a business.’  

“That’s what citizens are looking for and it will be an increasing trend in what you are doing,” he said.

Image from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0

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