The government needs to distribute digital expertise to procurement teams across Whitehall if it is to succeed in efforts to increase innovation in public services, a conference has heard.
Government told to distribute digital expertise across Whitehall to improve procurement – Photo credit: PA
Speakers at an event on digital government held in London yesterday (16 March) said that the government’s aim to use smaller and more innovative suppliers was being held back by a lack of expertise in procurement teams.
The event discussed a number of tender notices on the Digital Marketplace that were not fit for purpose, for instance by requiring companies to have accounts for the past three years – something many start-ups are unlikely to have – or asking for experience using PRINCE2.
When asked by PublicTechnology how the government could tackle the problem, panellists said that, although there would not be a quick fix, efforts should focus on improving the technical skills of those working in procurement.
“People don’t regard procurement as a profession,” said Sam de Silva, a partner at law firm Nabarro.
“I think, particularly in the public sector, they might have been doing something different and fell into a procurement role. And before they know it they’re procuring a multi-billion dollar IT system, which goes horribly wrong, and people are surprised.”
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De Silva called for there to be more work done on building up people’s procurement expertise, as well as an increased focus on digital skills and engagement across Whitehall more widely.
Meanwhile, Tim Barnes, founder of an incubator for SMEs trying to work with government called Rain Gods, said that one of the major problems was the “high degree of centralisation” of expertise in government.
He said that this was partly because the initial efforts to increase digital innovation in Whitehall created the Government Digital Service, but that there was now an argument for distributing that know-how “in a more intelligent way” into the departments.
“It’s not about trying to skill-up every single person in every single department to be an absolute expert – but you should have enough digital expertise to be able to advise on procurement,” Barnes said. “It’s about how you build that departmental-level expertise, so it can help the procurement teams.”
De Silva also said that more could be done to simplify government contracts and the procurement platforms used by the public sector.
He suggested that the government create one single procurement portal with one integrated payment function, and work on explaining the Digital Marketplace catalogue in more user-friendly ways.
The comments echoed those made during an earlier session at the event by Daniel Thornton, programme director at the Institute for Government, who said the Digital Marketplace was a “welcome innovation” but that it was “clear it isn’t being used in the right way”.
Thornton said that there needed to be more vetting of the tenders that are published, and that the government should work harder on getting departments and agencies to understand and comply with the standards GDS sets.
Sources have previously told PublicTechnology that reforms aimed at getting contractors to pay the right levels of tax should have been used to encourage departments to use the Digital Outcomes and Specialists platform to procure specific outcomes, rather than bringing in contractors to do the same work as regular civil servants.
However, speaking about the IR35 reforms last month, one commentator – who wished to remain anonymous – said that public sector bodies had “not been properly briefed” on how to use DOS2 to change the way they procure services.