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Whitehall’s IT landscape from the supplier side

17/10/16

Interview: Tom McCann, chair of techUK new Central Government Council, gives a perspective on Government as a Platform, commoditised solutions and the tensions between big players and SMEs

Whitehall has become a different environment for the IT industry in recent years. There are still plenty of healthy relationships between departments and agencies and their technology suppliers, but a scepticism was brought into the Government outlook under the Coalition. There has been very public effort to clip the wings of big companies, provide more business for SMEs, and make a virtue of reusing solutions rather than paying for a multitude of individual deals.

Tom McCannBut Tom McCann (pictured) insists the outlook is still positive for the big and small players in the industry, and that they can do a lot to prove their value.

He has just taken on the role of chair of the newly formed Central Government Council at IT industry association techUK. It is inevitable that he is a cheerleader for the industry, but he also has to play an active role in the dialogue with civil servants, and in ensuring there are still opportunities in that sceptical environment.

A big question is how the suppliers can adapt to the Government as a Platform. There seems to be an underlying tension between its aim of producing digital platforms that can be reused around government, and the need of suppliers to carry on selling new solutions to departments and agencies.

McCann acknowledges that there is an obvious perception of tension, and that there is still some uncertainty about how the programme will develop, but asserts that some companies are already adapting.

Definition question

“It really depends on what you define as a platform, and a lot of organisations are waiting to see how it is defined in the new Government Digital Strategy (publication of which is expected soon),” he says.

“The big next question is, once we understand what the Government is trying to achieve beyond GOV.UK and Verify, what will be industry’s role in providing experience and value?

“We all recognise that more joined up working across government is essential for efficiencies and operational effectiveness, and everyone is keen to play a part. But at the same time everybody recognises that there will not be the very large multi-year procurements there were in the past.

“Larger organisations have recalibrated and repositioned themselves to support government on that. That’s why we can break the perception that industry is ill at ease with the platforms, there might be quite a lot that industry could contribute to that.”

He suggests that companies that took part in the digital exemplars – the 25 projects run from 2013-15 to move individual Whitehall services to digital delivery – could bring their experience and collaborative behaviour to the way platforms develop.

The other big test is in the movement towards buying commoditised IT. It has always been a large factor in hardware procurement, but is gathering steam in software and networking, and seems to offer less promise to suppliers than bespoke or very specific ‘out of the box’ solutions for government processes.

Challenge and embrace

“It’s a different question for the product vendor and systems integrator; the former has a much greater challenge,” McCann says. “But some are embracing that, particularly organisations like Microsoft, working closely and collaboratively with government around their cloud based services.

“It’s about looking at the business model of your organisation and seeing how you can try out this new collaborative partnership.

“One of the things is open source. There have been a number of programmes where suppliers have committed commercially and contractually to place code GitHub so it can be reused across government. There is a real opportunity for government to look towards a commodity play, to see what assets they have developed in that open source way and how can they work with industry to reuse some of those, or as part of a broad platform play.”

He says that, while government is looking to build its own capability, the best way is working collaboratively with suppliers. The biggest challenge for the industry, meanwhile, is how it can deliver digital solutions at scale, partly in taking the exemplars from last year as a starting point.

“It’s about maturity of governance and making sure you can present the business case in the right way, and how you can present those assets,” he says.

When it comes to technologies that could emerge to play a significant role in public services, McCann sees efficiencies, especially cashable benefits, continuing to be a big driver in adoption. He suggests that artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning could become increasingly significant as people can already see their potential to produce these benefits.

“It’s early days for some of the technologies, but the opportunities are quite clear, particularly for citizen service channels around interactions, the use of avatars and machine learning,” he says.

Change in dialogue

As for the new council, which held its first meeting last week, McCann says it broadens the range of organisations involved in the dialogue between techUK and Whitehall.

“The key word is focus,” he says. “The remit is to drive the wider techUK public services programme area, working not only with the usual suspects – big departments such as DWP and HMRC – but the agencies as well.

“The make-up of the council is from across the spectrum of techUK membership. We have equal membership between start-ups/SMEs, medium and large organisatons. It’s about making sure we get the right representatives of the techUK membership into government and reflecting what they want.”

He expects the early focus to be on the early procurement for some large programmes, such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ UnITy, and providing feedback on SME-oriented frameworks, such as Digital Outcomes.

While the association supports the Government’s encouragement of SMEs to win a big slice of its business, McCann says there are concerns over smaller firms signing up to financial liability caps and procurement frameworks that stretch them too far and creates an element of risk for everyone. Meanwhile, the SMEs are concerned that larger players may prevent some business coming up to the frameworks.

The aim is for the council to resolve the tension as it works with government, and to help civil servants get a full understanding of their options.

“It’s making sure we’re supporting government and that they are making informed buying decisions,” he says.

“We also want to proactively bring fresh thinking, ideas and innovation to government.”

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