(Image by Dafydd Vaughan via Creative Commons)
By Steven McGinty
When most people think of public-private sector technology collaboration the word ‘controversy’ isn’t too far behind. High profile failures such as the Home Office’s immigration computer system (which cost the taxpayer £224 million) and NHS Connecting for Health (which cost £9 billion over 10 years), have made both the public and politicians wary of investing in large-scale digital projects.
So, it wasn’t too surprising when the Cabinet Office announced in January that it was conducting a review of government IT contracts.
Why do digital projects fail?
In 2003, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology published a report outlining the key reasons why digital projects struggle to meet expectations:
- Fast moving technology – technology differs from other projects in that advances are so rapid that technologies can become obsolete by the time a project is complete.
- Defining requirements – a study by the British Computing Society found poor management of requirements as the main reason for failure of the Home Office’s immigration system.
- Complexity – IT projects can be complex, and it’s not always possible to estimate the full extent of the difficulty of a project.
- Oversight – staff can find it difficult to judge the success of project during its development (particularly non-technical staff).
- Interoperability – IT projects generally involve different systems. It can be challenging to ensure that these systems interact, particularly if no plan has been developed.
- Limited skills – many software developers do not have formal qualifications and there is a shortage of senior developers to undertake projects.
Why should the public-private sector collaborate?
In a recent interview with Business Voice, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, Government Digital Service (GDS) executive director, explained his views on the private sector. He stated:
“I want the private sector to understand that we are open for business and we need suppliers as part of the ecosystem”
In some respects, Mr Foreshew-Cain was addressing his remarks to those involved in the digital sector interested in new opportunities. But he understands that the government cannot achieve digital transformation on its own, not just because of the rapid changes in technology, but also the challenges in recruiting the right skills. For instance, the traditionally long recruitment process in the civil service can act as a barrier when digital skills are in high demand.
He also suggests that ‘insourcing’ (only developing projects within the public sector) is not the way forward, and that government should be tapping into the UK’s world leading digital sector.
The GDS has created the Digital Marketplace, an online platform which aims to make procurement as simple and fast as possible for the public sector and suppliers. In his interview, Mr Foreshew-Cain explained that the marketplace allows the public sector bodies to access the skills and services they need, whilst providing digital innovators with an opportunity to grow and develop their ideas, in a way that directly benefits the government.
He also highlighted the success of the Digital Marketplace, with over £1 billion in contracts being awarded, including over half to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
Key factors for successful collaboration
Rob Lamb, Cloud Business Director at the EMC multinational data storage corporation, has outlined a number of actions that the UK must take to benefit from digital technology. These include:
- Information – It’s important that technology is more than just websites, and that data is used to provide meaningful insights to business and the public sector.
- Clustering experts – traditional organisations and digital innovators need to be given opportunities to collaborate to solve problems and share good practice.
- Government role – public sector organisations should embrace new technologies, open up as many data sets as possible, as well as introduce a framework for data analytics (so customers can be assured that data is being managed appropriately).
Innovative practice – Civtech
In July 2016, the Scottish Government announced the launch of Civtech, a pilot project which encourages entrepreneurs, start-ups and small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) to develop innovative solutions to public sector problems.
Unconventionally, the tender does not include pre-determined solutions, instead opting to pose six open questions, known as ‘challenges’, and inviting participants to provide answers. These include:
- How can we get health and social care data and analysis to the widest possible audience?
- How can we make our data publications more accessible and appealing?
- How can we use technology to design smart roads?
The project involves a number of stages, including the ‘exploration stage’ where sponsoring public sector organisations work with teams to develop their solutions. At each stage funding is available, with companies keeping their own intellectual property and equity.
This approach may provide a viable alternative to the more traditional methods of procuring digital services.
Public-private sector collaborative projects fail for a number of reasons. However, if the public sector is to progress with digital transformation, it must allow the private sector to play active role in the ‘eco-system’. The real debate going forward should focus on how we address challenges and provide the environment for successful public-private sector collaboration.