The importance of getting government ICT right was explored once more this week, as Intellect gave evidence at the Public Administration Select Committee’s second evidence session of its inquiry into the Government’s use of ICT. I was joined by Janet Grossman, Intellect’s Public Sector Council Chair to represent the industry position. Also on the panel were David Clarke MBE, CEO of the British Computing Society and Martin Rice, CEO of Erudine, a small IT company who are also Intellect members.
The key points discussed included the role of large companies versus SMEs in the public sector marketplace, agile development, skills, open source and public sector procurement. Intellect sought to highlight the importance of focussing on business needs and outcomes first, before deciding on what technology solutions can help achieve those outcomes. This is in line with our key message around government ICT which we have been setting out for more than a decade.
We acknowledged that there have been mistakes made in the past, but made clear that industry is eager to do its bit to help government improve its use of ICT. Change can only be achieved if government and industry work collectively. I would now like to expand on some of those points that were discussed at the hearing.
Helping smaller companies and new entrants
We recognise that the current environment makes it difficult for SMEs to do business with government. Opening up public sector business to different types of organisations – especially SMEs, as well as social enterprises and charities, is clearly a high priority for the Government. We attended the SME summit hosted by David Cameron and Francis Maude at the Treasury last month, where a number of initiatives were announced to make it easier for SMEs to do business with the public sector.
As over 60% of our members are SMEs, we strongly support this agenda. However, we are also strong advocates of the creation of a diverse ecosystem. The best results for government can be achieved through a broad ecosystem of different suppliers doing different things, including large and small companies. A public sector market that attracts a range of suppliers, large and small, will have added benefits in that it will lead to increased investment and the creation of more jobs in the UK.
One of the biggest barriers for SMEs and new entrants to the public sector market is the cost and length of procurement in the UK. Procurement of a major project or programme takes an average of 77 weeks in the UK, as opposed to 40 weeks in Germany. Bidding for a major procurement can cost millions of pounds to suppliers which clearly hinders many SMEs. By making procurement simpler, faster and cheaper, government can open up the market to many new players, including SMEs. Intellect has worked closely with the government for many years on reforming the procurement process. However, many of the good ideas that have been jointly developed have not yet been fully rolled out across the public sector.
One of the key elements to successful procurement is early engagement with key stakeholders and particularly with the supplier community before the start of the formal procurement process. Intellect’s Concept Viability is a service that does just that. This enables public sector customers to consult with a broad range of experts from the technology industry before the launch of a procurement. It helps the customer assess the potential risks associated with a specific project before committing to a particular approach. Concept Viability has been used for over 80 public sector projects and is recommended by the National Audit Office.
Open source and open standards
Open source should be used where it makes best business sense, where it provides best value for money and where it delivers the best solution and outcome. Innovation and value for money can be derived from both open source and licensed software business models. But even more important in this debate is the need for open standards. Open standards are fundamental in ensuring that systems mesh together across government and enable greater interoperability.
Intellect is looking forward to working closely with our members, both large and small, and with government to ensure that technology is used more effectively by the public sector in future. And we hope that the next time we are invited to give evidence to a select committee, it is to share the lessons learned from the successful use of ICT by government!