What does the IT industry want as future digital government policy?

Labour Party asks suppliers to share their top public sector technology priorities

As part of the Labour Party’s review into digital government, suppliers have been asked to share their top public sector technology priorities.

Labour’s ongoing Digital Government Review has published the submissions from various suppliers, big and small, as well as individuals, social enterprises and unions that have advised the party on digital reforms.

These submissions provide an insight into what suppliers from giants, such as Microsoft, to SMEs like Skyscape would like to see in the event of a Labour government next year.

But the “big seven” IT suppliers were nowhere to be seen. HP, Capgemini, BT, Capita, Fujitsu, Atos, IBM and CSC were recently listed as the IT and telecoms suppliers that earn the most from government contracts per year.

HP alone was cited as earning £1.7bn a year according to the Whitehall Monitor, while Capgemini earned around £1bn from 2012 to 2013. The total revenue for the six IT suppliers (excluding BT, which was classed as telecoms) came to £4.6bn in 2012 and £4.2bn in 2013.

Labour has stated that some of its submissions were received under the request of confidentiality and that those requests have been respected so the details of any submissions from anonymous suppliers would remain under wraps.

Creating digital services that citizens prefer to use instead of more expensive channels of government is key to citizen satisfaction


Computer Weekly asked the office of Chi Onwurah, the Shadow Cabinet Office minister leading the digital government review, if the above suppliers had provided suggested reforms, but was told: “We can only name those who explicitly said they are happy for us to name them as having submitted.”

At the launch of the review, Onwurah told Computer Weekly she expected Fujitsu and HP were likely to contribute.

However, Fujitsu, HP and the other five big suppliers are not listed as taking part in the review, meaning they have either not submitted a document or asked for submissions to be kept private.

From the organisations who did submit suggestions, these were the six big themes which came to light:

1. Digital service delivery

Creating effective digital services for citizens and carrying on the work started by the coalition’s Government Digital Service (GDS) was one of the key points raised by suppliers.

“Creating digital services that citizens prefer to use instead of more expensive channels of government (for example, contact centres and counter service) is a key government battleground and critical to realising cost savings and increasing citizen satisfaction,” said Adobe.

Thanks to the success of Gov.UK, the supplier noted that government websites are now an effective way to deliver content and transactional services online. “But more effort must be focused on optimising the way these and other transactional services work for different situations and different types of users,” it said.

The supplier suggested using analytics like commercial organisations to personalise customer engagement with government and guide users towards “checkout”.

Government should “make more use of analytics to manage the user experience and ensure citizens are able to easily complete their government transactions.”

The supplier also said a future Labour government should develop “government as a platform”. It said: "The greatest barrier to efficient and transformative digital government is the existence of organisational silos.

GDS has led efforts to make government services digital by default


“Digital government users are faced with a series of essentially separate organisations – each trying to optimise the experience it provides. While individual services are incrementally helpful, government agencies are missing a massive opportunity to improve services through cross-government service provisioning”

Microsoft agreed and said: “GDS has led efforts to make government services digital by default. The 25 exemplar services being prioritised by the GDS represent a good starting point. We now need to deliver on this ambition and drive it more broadly across government.”

Outsourcer and consultancy company Accenture also suggested government needs to service “citizens universally.”

It also noted that the government needs to get better at communicating the challenges and the benefits of large-scale IT programmes to the media and the public, due to the bad press some programmes have faced failing to be delivered on time and on budget.

2. Digital inclusion

While digital services are top on the minds of everyone who works in or with government, the need to remember about the digital divide in Britain is still very strong. Labour has been vocal about this problem and has said it must ensure digital public services are widely accessible and citizens have the basic online skills needed to take advantage of such services.

Adobe said not all types of government services lend themselves to online delivery.

The benefits (of broadband investment and higher speeds) are not shared evenly across the UK


The Mobile Broadband Group hopes a future Labour government would continue to take forward the work of Go On UK, and others to continue to place emphasis on developing the UK’s digital skills base.

Social enterprise Tinder, was created to support and speak for the 11 million people across the UK who are struggling to connect to the internet – because they either don’t know how or cannot afford to.

Tinder reiterated its calculations to the Labour party that it would cost £875m to quip 100% of the UK adult population with basic online skills by 2020. But it believes this bill should be shared between government, and the private sector, as well as voluntary and community groups.

3. Connectivity

The Communication Workers Union (CWU) used its submission to raise concerns about the current level of investment into digital infrastructure and the limitations it causes to access to online services.

“Although the market is investing strongly in parts of the UK where the business case is clear, many homes and businesses around the country are struggling to achieve adequate broadband speeds. 

The UK needs digital infrastructure that provides connectivity, whether fixed or mobile


Ofcom’s CEO Ed Richards recently said: “The benefits (of broadband investment and higher speeds) are not shared evenly across the UK and there is more work to be done to deliver wider availability of broadband and superfast broadband, especially to rural communities.”

Vodafone agreed and said that, if the UK was to reap the benefits of an internet economy or if e-government was going to take off, it would need ubiquitous connectivity.

“The UK needs digital infrastructure that provides connectivity, whether fixed or mobile, and we need to ensure government policy creates a market that encourages investment,” said Vodafone. “The goal is to forge a partnership with government to tackle the challenge of ubiquitous coverage in which both private and public sector use the resources and powers within their control to move forward to provide the connectivity the UK deserves.”

4. Open standards

Unsurprisingly, Microsoft used its submission to encourage a future Labour government not to mandate a single standard for open documents, suggesting a future Labour government should recommend multiple open standards instead.

While the IT giant said it “strongly supports open standards”, it would want a future government to ensure procurement policy is “technologically neutral and objective” by not ruling out specific products or suppliers.

“This would ensure buyer choice and help departments deploy products that are interoperable and future proofed,” said Microsoft.

In January, the government announced a set of open standards that it hopes will be used for documents across government which didn’t include Microsoft’s preferred Open XML (OOXML) format.

5. Competition

Skyscape used its submission to reiterate the thoughts of the current government and Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude. It said: “Too few suppliers have too much market share, and charge too much. The market is difficult to access, and the benefits of competition and technological innovation are difficult to realise.”

Regular retendering of the framework every six months allows G-Cloud to support new products and services


Speaking as a smaller supplier, Skyscape argued its case. The company said: “Smaller suppliers put more back into the wider economy. A UK-based small supplier will pay all its tax in the UK, deliver better value service, generate economic growth and be a future UK exporter.”

The supplier wants Labour to continue the coalition’s attitude of creating a vibrant, competitive market of suppliers, large and small, by using innovative frameworks such as G-Cloud.

It hails the G-Cloud framework, saying it has been “transformative in its acceleration of government’s take up of small suppliers, and its reach is now extending well into wider government.”

“Extension of the principles that underpin G-Cloud as a matter of policy for all government tenders would enable government to optimise the talent and innovation that exists within its small supplier community,” said Skyscape.

It also highlighted how the regular retendering of the framework every six months allows G-Cloud to support new products and services.

But, while it praises G-Cloud, it said the government tendering process is still often a long winded and expensive process. “A small supplier may well be competing against a large supplier who can deploy a dedicated and experienced bid team. While there is now a presumption against using the competitive dialogue procedure in central government, they are a still regular occurrence in the wider government.”

6. Big data

EMC believes there is a huge opportunity to unlock the value of government data through better analytics. But, to capatalise on it, the company said “much more needs to be done to pool, share and link government and external data sources, and encourage collaboration, knowledge and skill sharing within and between departments and outside bodies".

EMC points to pockets of activity within central government, the research community and healthcare, but suggests overall leadership and strategy – similar to the G-Cloud programme – is lacking.

Labour should think more about social consequences of new services


But MedConfidential has been campaigning against the use of healthcare data, following the furor around the proposed NHS Care.data programme. The controversies surrounding the plans to expand the collection of patient care data from hospitals to include general practices came to a head in February when failure to explain the benefits to the general public forced the NHS to put the plans on hold. 

In its submission it said: “The information governance of the NHS is currently in chaos and flux; public controversy still flares up over the decisions and actions of NHS England and the HSCIC, and trust is at risk.”

Medconfidential believes the UK would have better digital services if a more human and ethical approach was taken at the design stage of services.

The organisation said Labour should think more about social consequences of new services, and it questioned whether government initiatives such as Care.data would have benefited from an independent ethical viewpoint at the stage of designing the project.

Read more on IT for government and public sector