It feels like we’re standing still, spinning our wheels, and – at times – sliding backwards.

The 2010s saw a cultural shift in the UK public sector to embrace 21st-century approaches to commissioning and delivering digital public services. However, it feels like we’ve taken our foot off the pedal in the 2020s.

Are lessons being unlearnt?

In July 2011, the Public Administration Select Committee published its important review of UK Government technology procurement (snappily) titled Government and IT — “a recipe for rip-offs”: time for a new approach. The review provided the diagnosis, and the Government Digital Service (GDS) was tasked with the cure. So much of what GDS got right in the next decade was an explicit response to what had gone wrong with IT procurement in the decades before. If we don’t continue to learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it – and that should matter to all of us.

In the past few years, we’ve seen a return to the large-scale technology procurement approach that the select committee reported on over ten years ago. Recent contract awards look like they’re from before 2010; in that regard, it’s as though GDS never existed.

IT contracts are being awarded to a few large, global enterprises, and there is less engagement with smaller and mid-size, home-grown businesses that can provide a broader range of expertise and experience. Certainly, from the anecdotes of digital delivery teams, there is a resurgence of the big upfront technology planning approach and less acceptance of iterative, incremental service development approaches informed by citizen-centred research and user-centred design. We’ve seen the old divisions reasserted between policy development and technical delivery, and worse divisions between those in research and development.

The Post Office-Horizon scandal – a tragedy on a personal level for the Subpostmasters and a catastrophic failure at an organisational level – is a stark warning to all. It’s not an isolated case. In 2021, the NAO found that a computer system from the 1980s was one of the causes of a scandal which led to more than £1 billion of UK state pensions not being paid.

What we build, how we build it, and who builds it are important decisions with real-world consequences. If we don’t consolidate the hard-won improvements we made to public service delivery, we risk not just standing still, but going backwards – with potentially horrific consequences.

Sadly, a September 2023 report from the Public Accounts Committee – Digital transformation in government: addressing the barriers to efficiency – confirms my impressions. It notes that “Government must find cost-effective ways to upgrade its IT systems, especially considering the high human and monetary cost of errors.” In the midst of a General Election campaign with public discourse focused on our struggling economy and public services, none of the parties are demonstrating that they understand the scale of this problem or the need for bold leadership at the top of government and in the civil service.

Simply put, when we outsource our national digital public infrastructure by procuring from big IT consultancies, we create the conditions for the next Horizon. Moreover, we will fail to realise the full potential for digital public service transformation.

But from adversity can come innovation, and we have the opportunity (and the need) to change the future. So, what should we do about it?

1. Focus on value delivered

Whilst there is value in ensuring a fair market price for services engaged, we should equally focus on ensuring we deliver maximum value for any cost incurred. It’s the Government’s job to ensure that public funds (our taxes) are expertly managed and efficiently allocated. However, it is a false economy to spend less if the consequence is failure.

I am not promoting the view that cost reduction is an unimportant consideration, or that lower price always equates to poor quality. Instead, I am arguing that cutting costs by procuring a large project from a ‘cheap vendor’ surrenders control over the outcome. Money isn’t saved by hiring less expensive, less capable people if the service delivered is unfit for purpose, takes longer to build, and costs more to operate.

Quite often, this approach to Government procurement doesn’t even make use of the best of our home-grown talent. This puts extra distance between those who develop policy and understand user needs and the engineering teams building and operating those services offshore. Those who commission digital projects should have a better understanding of the solution needed and appreciate the importance of engaging teams that reflect the breadth and experience required to build it.

And values matter here too – as a certified B Corp, we believe in business being a force for good, and we are proud of our mission to create opportunity and sustainable prosperity through technical innovation. Who we are matters as much as what we do, and reinforces our commitment to building high-quality, cost-efficient, sustainable digital services.

2. Empower Leaders who focus on People, not Process

I have so much respect for the digital and technical folk who are working hard to transform services. However, there are not enough of them, and we have recently seen a high level of churn in civil service leadership, with the corresponding loss of institutional expertise. This was called out in a recent report assessing digital transformation in government. It highlighted that: “Government’s public services need fundamental reform but often lack a single service owner and timely metrics on costs and performance [I would say ‘value’] which are essential foundations for identifying existing costs and tracking efficiency improvements.”

People build technology. It is a creative process, and multidisciplinary teams are the unit of delivery. Civil servants need to have skin in the game rather than being tasked with providing remote governance of third-party delivery. Government departments must continue to select experienced service owners and give them control over scope, spending and outcomes. Empower them to build high-performing, value-focused, multidisciplinary teams with an ethos of “Make it work, don’t just get it done”.

3. Widen the supplier base

Government must commit to widening the supplier base by reducing the size of contracts and supporting a simple, open and fair procurement process that identifies the right partners, with the right skills, for the right projects. Collaboration should be encouraged, with suppliers offering their services in partnership. Government should do more to encourage competition and engage with innovative, expert and experienced businesses as a part of a flourishing UK technology marketplace.

This will take real effort. The Government must commit to common standards and enforce their adoption, ensuring that digital investments prioritise interoperability, incentivise reuse, and commoditise where possible. This is the only way to eliminate over-reliance on a small group of suppliers with proprietary concerns who can increase contract values in exchange for operating costs and minor enhancements.

These changes would empower civil servants to improve the quality of outcomes and increase service resiliency, supported by an ecosystem of smaller suppliers reviewing each other’s work. Otherwise, there’s the risk of large suppliers evading scrutiny.

4. Think bolder and better, not bigger

Tapping into a wider market of expertise and engaging with focused contracting doesn’t have to mean smaller-scale ambition. It can mean bolder and better, and a greater pace of change.

Government technology departments wield immense potential to realise societal progress through strategic investments. In an era of rapid technological evolution, they must move away from decades of conventional thinking and embrace audacious visions. By thinking bigger and bolder, and working with the amazing talent available here in the UK, departments can harness innovation to address complex challenges more effectively.

Strategic investments in cutting-edge technologies can not only enhance operational efficiency but also foster economic growth and improve citizen services. Embracing transformative initiatives (like AI) can streamline processes, enhance data security, and encourage citizen engagement. Moreover, bold investments in technology position governments as pioneers in shaping the future, driving sustainable development and ensuring long-term prosperity for all.

The best way to build good services is to start small and iterate

Those words aren’t mine. I’m quoting from the Government Design Principles, first published in 2012, providing the basis on which the UK developed its world-leading digital public services. They are as true today as ever and underpin the case I have made here. You don’t build good services by ceding control of large-scale delivery to a few big companies. You build good services by identifying user needs and starting small, shaping services iteratively with a relentless focus on the value to be delivered.

The principles also say, “Make things open: it makes things better”. However, awarding control of large-scale delivery to big consultancies reduces transparency, weakens governance, and increases the risk of supplier lock-in. There is a clear alternative that would foster a better-skilled civil service capable of managing more resilient services: open up procurement and work with a wider range of suppliers on smaller projects in multidisciplinary teams.

That’s how we’ll stop sliding backwards and race back into pole position – delivering more value to citizens, returning the UK’s digital government services to world-leading status, and avoiding another Horizon.