An alternative three-point plan for IT suppliers to government

TechUK, the IT industry trade body, kindly invited me to chair a panel debate at their launch this week of a “three-point plan” to improve the relationship between IT suppliers and government buyers.

At such a critical time for the progress of digital government, any initiative to position the IT industry better to help drive that strategy forward should be welcomed. But as I put it to TechUK CEO Julian David, surely this should have been business as usual for IT suppliers for years?

David was honest enough to acknowledge past problems and pragmatic enough to focus on future challenges, and for what it’s worth I think he is taking TechUK in the right direction and giving the IT sector a much bigger voice in both Whitehall IT and Westminster policy-making.

But you can’t get away from the fact that the only reason such a plan is needed is because the relationship between IT suppliers and government IT buyers became so bad. There is fault on both sides of course, but in recent years Whitehall IT chiefs have done much more to correct their side than many of their traditional suppliers have.

As one member of the audience at the launch event pointed out, surely the fact that the TechUK plan was produced – by their own admission – without input from government IT buyers is a clear weakness, even if TechUK is eager to have such discussions now.

If you asked a reasonable sample of government IT leaders for their three-point plan for IT suppliers, I reckon it would look something like this:

1.    Don’t be greedy – be open
2.    Listen
3.    Focus on our user needs not your products

If you look at some of the firms that have prospered in government in recent years, most would fit into all those categories – they are generally smaller, more collaborative, more agile than the traditional system integrator types with their penchant for outsourcing mega-deals, off-the-shelf products and complex software licensing.

The big suppliers are trying though – slowly. HP, for example, recently brought its CEO, Meg Whitman, and several of her top team to London to co-host an “innovation summit” with head of the civil service Sir Jeremy Heywood, other permanent secretaries and government digital and IT leaders.

Of course they spoiled it somewhat by both sides agreeing not to say anything in public about what was discussed – I’ve tried – but you would hope that at the very least items two and three from my list above were the focus, considering HP still takes £1.7bn out of the public purse every year.

The TechUK panel also discussed the comment by Government Digital Service chief Mike Bracken in a recent Computer Weekly interview that “the ideal engagement [with suppliers] is via a browser”. Not surprisingly, supplier representatives felt that was a little unrealistic.

But if nothing else, Bracken’s comment serves as an ongoing warning to the IT industry that government will no longer be a pushover, and that many suppliers still need to improve the way they engage with their most important customer.