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Politicians need to think smarter but techUK’s proposals don’t go far enough

You only have to watch the latest government IT initiative slide past its deadline and way over budget to see the perils of public sector tech projects.

The Universal Credit system started out with a projected cost of £2.2bn but has cost an estimated £12.8bn so far with just 0.2% of benefits recipients likely to be registered on the system by next year’s general election.

Kicked into the long grass

The continuing disaster in government technology procurement and execution should mean that techUK’s newly released plan for improving the delivery of public services is a welcome addition to the debate.

But the UK tech industry trade body, which represents 850 companies employing over 500,000 workers, has offered woolly suggestions that will be kicked into the long grass by politicians.

The techUK plan has three points which I’ll take on in turn. The first is “better engagement” with techUK suggesting its members will “engage much earlier in the process, ensuring officials develop policy with a proper understanding of what technology can do”.

In all likelihood that means little more than suppliers jumping earlier to suggest that their particular solution is the only feasible one out there and hoping the tender document leans their way.

Stuck in the mud

The second pillar of the techUK proposal is “better information” which it says would be achieved by industry agreement on “a standardised data and evaluation scheme”.

There are several issues here including how long it will take to get that industry agreement and how that standardised approach works out when you face competition from across the world.

The third element of the plan is the vaguest with techUK promising “more innovation, giving civil servants the opportunity to experiment and explore solutions in a risk-free environment”.

It proposes an “innovation den” model with a test platform for new projects but those ideas still have to make their way into the highly-politicised real world where public service products get stuck in the mud.

The long term view

The biggest problem of all though for techUK’s plan is that it has been development independent of government and the political parties.

Once its ideas get into the hands of civil servants they will be rapidly diluted and come into conflict with convoluted existing systems and contracts.

techUK is right when it says that government must become a better customer when it comes to buying technology and some of the proposals in its manifesto published last month would go along way to achieving that.

Most notably its idea for 10 year innovation budgets extending beyond parliamentary cycles could end the problem of subsequent administrations dropping projects at huge cost to the public purse.

techUK calls for digital ministers

The call in the same manifesto for dedicated digital ministers in every department, a new chief privacy officer and a digital trade tsar should also be heeded by the political parties.

However, ministers focusing on digital innovation will only be effective if they understand the issues thoroughly. We still live in a country where the Health Secretary doesn’t need to have experience in the NHS and the Defence Secretary usually hasn’t served in anything beyond the Army cadets.

We do need significant changes in how government works with technology but the industry in the UK needs to offer up more concrete solutions. Deluging politicians with white papers and more data does not do enough to change the mindset in Westminster that has produced so many embarrassing failures.