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Government must support SMEs, says Oliver Dowden

The minister for implementation, Oliver Dowden, provides further details on the GovTech competition and talks about GDS’s role as an “innovation incubator”, losing data policy to DCMS and the importance of SMEs

The Government Digital Service (GDS) faces a big challenge in driving end-to-end digitisation across government, according to implementation minister Oliver Dowden.

Speaking at the GDS Sprint 18 conference today (10 May), Dowden, who took over ministerial responsibility for digital government in January 2018, said GDS was “looking to the future” and wanted to be “the “innovation incubator of government”.

The organisation’s role has changed over the past few years to become more of a facilitator and work more collaboratively with departments to create and design services.  

“The first challenge we had was to create a digital interface, so people can interact digitally with government. Now, as a result of that, hundreds of public services have a digital front,” said Dowden. 

“The next challenge is to ensure there’s digital in-between, so a big challenge for GDS is to continue this process of end-to-end digitisation.”

Dowden added that he was confident the government would achieve end-to-end digital services for citizens by 2020, in line with the government’s transformation strategy.

This, he said, will involve working closely with the private sector, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

“We should be supporting our SMEs because they’re such a vital part of the economy,” he said, adding that spend with SMEs through the Digital Marketplace is at 46.6%, or £1.46 of every £3 – well above the government’s target of 33%.  

“It’s vital that small businesses can access government departments as simply as possible. We all know that small businesses are the engine of our economy, and I’m determined to do anything I can to support them,” said Dowden.

“The process of digitising procurement brings opportunities. For SMEs, the biggest barrier they have is the entry barrier, so digital provides a good way of reducing [those].”

GDS changes

The role of GDS, and its future, has come under close scrutiny and discussion lately, particularly as prime minister Theresa May announced that responsibility for data policy and governance in Whitehall was to be taken away from GDS and move instead to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). 

The news came as concerns and rumours have been mounting that GDS has lost much of its political support. However, Dowden dismissed that, saying “a lot of that was perception rather than reality”. 

On GDS losing data policy, he said it was a change that had long been under discussion, and that moving it to DCMS was “a more sensible alignment” as data sharing fits more obviously “with the economy side”.

“In terms of the core function of GDS, that’s the delivery of the government digital services and remaining a world leader in digital services,” he said, adding that his role was to “identify where the frontier is and push that frontier”.  

That is why, he said, the government has launched a series of competitions for tech firms to come up with innovations that will improve public services.

GovTech competition

As previously reported by Computer Weekly, the IT is being funded using the £20m GovTech challenge fund, which was first announced by the prime minister in November 2017 and consists of a series challenges revolved around improving public services.  

Dowden said central and local government organisations had submitted around 50 challenges. These have been whittled down to five, which will be open for competition.

The first challenge, which opens on 14 May, was submitted by the Home Office.

“The Home Office is challenging the sector to apply artificial intelligence (AI) to identify and take out Daesh terrorist recruitment images that are spread online,” said Dowden. 

There is already technology that exists to automate the detection of propaganda videos, but more than 80% of Daesh media is imagery, he added. 

The competition is also in line with the government’s AI sector deal, aiming to stimulate innovation, as well as help drive the development of the UK’s GovTech sector.

The other four challenges are recording, checking and tracking waste; tackling loneliness and rural isolation; cutting traffic congestion; and deploying smart sensors on council vehicles to improve services.

The government expects to run up to 15 challenges over the three years of the programme.

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