How to build a smarter state

‘We must bring together all the ingredients needed to build a smarter state’
Julian David, Chief executive, techUK
By Julian David, Chief executive, techUK

This has been a year like no other. No one has been unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic. From a public sector tech point of view, it has changed how the state works, the services it has to deliver for the country and how it engages with partners to help address the crisis.

As we come towards the end of the year, it is important we take the time to reflect on what good digital learnings we can take from this unprecedented time as we prepare for what comes next for our services, economy and people in 2021.

Like many others, techUK, representing the technology industry in the UK, has long been an evangelist for greater collaboration between government and industry to drive innovation, increase efficiency and improve outcomes for citizens. That collaboration has never been more important, nor more intense.

Improving how services work together

The past few months saw major developments in how public services and industry work together. The government issued a procurement policy note advising public bodies to provide contractual relief to suppliers affected by COVID-19 and provision for more direct awards and urgent procurements in these exceptional circumstances were demanded. Mechanisms were set up to help channel innovative solutions and offers of support from industry to local and central government.

What legacy will these developments leave in terms of how the public sector accesses industry capabilities? How will buyer and supplier behaviour change? How can we maintain procurement dynamism and agility while ensuring a level playing field and fair competition?

Alongside these questions raised by the COVID-19 crisis, all the familiar issues that were top of the govtech agenda still need dealing with and came to light at techUK’s flagship public services conference Building the Smarter State.

The legacy IT estate still represents about half of central government IT spending and it is welcome that this issue has now risen up the priority list. Over the past few months, serious efforts have been made across Whitehall to address it. Public sector bodies still need to improve their access to innovation, improve the lot of small and medium-sized enterprises in this sector, and get more value out of their data. Brexit and the end of the transition period mean there will shortly be an overhaul of public procurement regulations.

Major public sector change is on the way

This all points towards a period of upheaval for the govtech sector and over the last few months we’ve seen hints that more major change is on the way. It has been reported that Lord Maude who, as a minister, founded the Government Digital Service (GDS), recently led a review of the role of the Cabinet Office and its relations with departments.

In his first blog for GDS, Alex Chisholm, chief operating officer (COO) for the Civil Service, emphasised his commitment to recruiting a government chief digital officer to lead the digital, data and technology function and shape and deliver the government’s transformation strategy.

The blog also announced that Alison Pritchard, who impressed as interim director general of GDS, will be moving to the Office for National Statistics as director general for data capability, to make progress on the perennial issue of government use of data, with Fiona Deans, current COO of GDS, taking over leadership of the organisation. This is all happening alongside the launch of the much anticipated National Data Strategy that will help drive the vision of the UK as a world-leading data economy. 

As we consider all this, ten years on from the report that led to the founding of GDS, it feels like we are on the cusp of the next step-change in digital government. Now is the time to be ambitious and have a vision for the future of our digital economy and services. As we move forward, we must continue the engagement between industry and public sector organisations and bring together all the ingredients needed to build a smarter state that meets the needs of its people and places.