UK officials’ focus on price damages IT procurements, report finds

By on 27/05/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
The Doteveryone report says that high-quality data should be collected and analysed in-depth to improve procurement processes. (Photo by fauxels via Pexels).

The UK civil service focuses too closely on price in procurement decisions, a new report has claimed, and “lacks the capability and capacity to fully understand” how new IT systems will create “societal impacts such as excluding certain groups of people from services, biased decision making, or a lack of privacy.” The result, it argues, is that “these implications are often not given due weight, particularly in a technology context, when many cannot be quantified in monetary terms.”

The report, Buying better technology in government, has been produced by think tank Doteveryone – which was founded by Martha Lane Fox, the digital entrepreneur who helped set up the Government Digital Service (GDS) in 2011. It argues that civil service organisations should improve their ability to understand the implications of different choices in digital systems’ design and development, and create processes to assess their impact following delivery.

“The technology the government uses should be responsible – it must serve the public interest and uphold, not undermine, a fair, inclusive and sustainable democratic society,” says the report. “Although the procurement of technology, and digitisation of public services, brings many potential benefits, too often its potential negative consequences are overlooked. The process for buying technology does not currently promote responsible technology.” 

The report recommends that the GDS – the unit responsible for leading digital transformation across government – develop its own version of ‘consequence scanning’ to be used in all government technology procurement. Consequence scanning is a practice developed by Doteveryone, designed to help organisations consider and mitigate the potential negative impacts of products and services on people and society. It says deeper consideration of these impacts is needed before such technologies are deployed, but that the public sector “lacks the capability and capacity to fully understand such impacts”.

Intended outcomes delivered?

As well as considering the impacts of technology in the procurement process, the report also recommends that departments seek to measure the full impact of new systems following their introduction.

Global Government Forum’s editorial director Matt Ross, who was interviewed for the report, is quoted as saying that in central government “there’s never proper appraisal of projects after the event, and that’s simply because it’s politically inconvenient for that to happen”. The report argues that civil servants should be tasked with answering questions such as ‘Did the procurement deliver the outcomes originally anticipated?’ and ‘Were there other unanticipated outcomes that occurred?’ The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), it says, should undertake and publish impact evaluations on government-procured technology. 

“The impact evaluations should understand the full range of economic, social and environmental effects of the service. There should be an interim review done after a year, so that insights can be learnt and fed back into improving the procurement process,” it says.  

Incentivising responsible innovation

The report also recommends that the government adopt a model incentivising “responsible innovation”. It suggests the Cabinet Office and the DCMS amend the ‘social value evaluation model’ proposed in a 2019 government consultation – which it says “is not a great fit for procuring technology” – and include responsible technology policy and metrics. “This should be accompanied by clear guidance, and suggested key performance indicators,” the report says. 

Doteveryone says that by leading the way in procuring responsible technology, the UK government could ensure “services are inclusive and beneficial to everyone”, “set the standard for wider technology to follow”, and “create a market for responsible products and services”.

Its report concludes: “Too little focus has been spent on improving the procuring process. Given the government’s dependency on private suppliers, this needs to change. The government needs to be proactive in the type of technology it wants in society. In a world where our lives will be increasingly mediated by technology, this has never been more urgent.”

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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